Potent white plumes of tear gas scatter the machete-wielding Kanak separatists. But moments later, the band of young native islanders regroups to hurl more stones and obscenities at French riot police. This scene has been repeated many times since Kanak separatists in this French South Pacific territory took 27 French paramilitary gendarmes hostage April 21. Through roadblocks, bomb blasts, shootings, and vandalism of voting booths, the Kanaks have sought to make their cause an issue in both the French presidential elections and a local vote for a regional assembly held April 24.
The hostage-takers are members of the FLNK (Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front). The left-wing group claims the Kanaks have run out of options and must now force France to deal with the independence issue. The FLNK represents some 80 percent of the native population and 34 percent of the total.
The FLNK conditions for release of the gendarmes were: Cancel the local election; pull French troops off the atoll where the hostages are being held; send an envoy to arrange a new referendum on independence based on UN guidelines.
For unexplained reasons, 11 of the original hostages were freed this past week. But five more gendarmes and a magistrate were later kidnapped as they tried to negotiate with separatists for more releases.
Meanwhile, the rhetoric is not cooling down. French Minister for Overseas Departments and Territories Bernard Pons has denounced the Kanaks as terrorists. He has noted that the majority of New Caledonians have voted against independence and that Paris supports this decision.
Intransigence over independence is all too familiar here. The only way to break the impasse, political observers say, is to somehow reconcile three major interests: the rights of French, Asian, and Polynesian settlers; native Kanak land and independence claims; French business and strategic interests.
New Caledonia is the world's third largest nickel producer. More important, France views the archipelago as but one part of its South Pacific territories, which include a nuclear testing site in French Polynesia. France worries that independence here would have a domino effect.
``New Caledonia may be the thin end of the wedge for decolo-nization in French Polynesia,'' says 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.''
Socialist President Fran,cois Mitterrand has made the most concerted attempt to address Kanak concerns. From previous reconciliation efforts, he knows that both the left and right will resort to violence if a proposed solution appears one-sided. A similar cycle of violence occurred prior to 1984 local elections and continued into 1985. The differences this time are that there are more troops and Kanak resolve has hardened.