Riots and hostages: French face test over New Caledonia self-rule

A tear gas canister explodes. The potent white plumes scatter the machete-wielding Kanak (native islander) separatists. But within a minute, 65 youths are back behind an oil drum-barricade across the road - hurling stones at 50 advancing French riot police. An hour and a half later, the siege of Ponerihouen is over. One gendarme injured, one building burned.

Since 27 French paramilitary gendarmes were taken hostage last Friday by New Caledonia's major pro-independence group, this scene has been repeated many times over. The Kanaks sought to make their cause an issue in both the French presidential elections and their own local vote. Sunday, election day in France and the South Pacific French territory, ushered in more road blocks, explosions, shootings, and vandalism of voting booths throughout the islands.

One Melanesian girl and four gendarmes have died. A dozen people have been seriously injured. For unexplained reasons, 11 of the gendarmes taken hostage were released on Monday. One hundred crack parachute troops have arrived to join 8,000 to 9,000 French forces in the search for the remaining hostages.

Meanwhile, the rhetoric is not cooling down. French Minister for Overseas Departments and Territories, Bernard Pons, who has just arrived from Paris, says France will not negotiate for the hostages. He denounced the Kanaks as terrorists. The majority of New Caledonians have voted against independence, and he says it is a democratic decision the French government stands behind.

The hostage captors are members of the FLNK (Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front) which claims an election boycott backed by violence is the only tactic left to advance their cause for independence. The left-wing FLNK represents about 80 percent of the native population (about 34 percent of the total population). The extent of election disruption would indicate that there are more than a few disgruntled Kanaks.

The FLNK conditions for release of the gendarmes were:

Cancel the April 24 local election.

Pull French troops out of Ouv'ea, the atoll where the hostages are being held in caves.

Send a special envoy, chosen by the French President and the prime minister to arrange a new referendum on independence based on UN guidelines.

Intransigence over independence, by both sides, is all too familiar in New Caledonia. To break the impasse, political observers say a solution is needed which reconciles three major interests: the rights of French, Asian, and Polynesian settlers; Kanak land and independence claims; French business and strategic interests.

New Caledonia is the third largest nickel producer in the world. More important, France views New Caledonia as but a part of the South Pacific region which includes its nuclear testing site in French Polynesia. It worries about the domino effect of independence.

``New Caledonia may be the thin end of the wedge for decolonization in French Polynesia,'' said Sydney University Professor John Connell. ``France feels very strongly that to remain a world power it should not only have a nuclear strike force but a presence in every ocean.''

Reconciling these three interests has proven difficult. New Caledonia's strategic value makes it tough for France to play the role of referee here. The territory is treated more like a soccer ball in the Paris political arena, than an entity with internal problems requiring specific care.

Fran,cois Mitterrand's socialist government since 1981 has made the most concerted attempt to address Kanak concerns. But many promises have gone unfulfilled. In the wake of his presidential victory, Mr. Mitterrand's decisions on New Caledonia will be watched closely.

``Mitterand could relieve the pressure. But for a solution, we have to find a true referee who doesn't take sides,'' says Nidoish Naisseline, one leader of a slightly more moderate independence group than the FLNK.

Through previous reconciliation attempts, Mitterrand knows that both the left and the right here have resorted to violence if a proposed solution appears one sided. A cycle of vandalism, shootings, and bombings almost identical to the current events began prior to the 1984 local elections and continued into 1985.

This terrorism has fueled a political polarization: French settlers on the rights, Kanaks on the left. In Noum'ea, the presidential elections illustrate the split. Because most Kanaks boycotted the election, Jacques Chirac got 73 percent of the vote, Jean-Marie Le Pen 13 percent, Raymond Barre 7.5 percent, and Mitterrand finished with just 3.8 percent.

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