NEW CALEDONIA. Locked in an uneasy standoff as French elections draw near

New Caledonia is bracing for an upsurge in violence as France's March parliamentary elections approach. The French territory is now caught in the middle of a political standoff. On one side is the island's independence movement, the Kanak Liberation Front, which is worried that a right-wing victory in France might mean more sympathy for New Caledonia's white settlers. On the other side are the settlers, who oppose independence and want continued French rule. Unrest is up, economy is down

Political unrest -- including sporadic violence -- has increased over the past three years. The economy, consequently, is in bad shape. Prices of nickel, the key export, are down. And numbers of tourists traveling to this ``South Seas'' Pacific island resort destination have dropped nearly 50 percent in the past 12 months, according to the central bank.

So far, various French plans to move the territory toward self-rule have failed. All of Paris's actions thus far have only succeeded in alienating -- and sparking violence from -- one or other side.

New Caledonia is home to about 160,000 people. The racially Melanesian indigenous populations, called Kanaks, are no longer a majority in their own right because of French immigration policies: French white settlers, when combined with a smaller number of racially Polynesian immigrants, form a political majority. The Kanaks say that the immigration policies -- about which they had no say -- should not be allowed to rob them of control over their country.

France most recently tried a regional system for the territory. Last September, a region-based election gave Kanaks control of three of the four regions. The exception is the region that includes the capital, Noumea, where most non-Kanaks are concentrated.

The Kanaks want the whole territory to become independent as soon as possible. They have promised that the new country, which they plan to rename Kanaky, will not engage in expulsions of the other races. As a prelude, they want control of Noumea, too.

But anti-independence groups believe France already has been too accommodating. They want to retain control of ``their'' region -- and to see newly entrenched Kanak power diminished in other regions. Kanak plan to strangle capital

The Kanaks say that they will step up their struggle if a right-wing vistory in France gives the settlers preferential treatment.

Key among Kanak threats is a plan to strangle the capital. Kanak says that, with the countryside already in their hands, they could cut off food, water, and other supplies to Noumea. How effective this would be has been a topic of keen debate in Noumea.

Meanwhile, the independence movement is trying to bring foreign pressure to bear on the situation. John Peu, a prominent Kanak Liberation Front official, recently appealed in Australia for a full-scale boycott of New Caledonia.

Mr. Peu argued that ``colonial domination'' of the territory depends ``on the money earned from tourism and trade.''

In tranquil times, the island gets jumbo jetloads of sun-seeking tourists from Australia.

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