THREE decades ago, France was torn apart by the independence struggle of then- colony Algeria. Today, as another colony, New Caledonia, pushes for independence, most Frenchmen are paying little attention. Only about one French voter in three cast a ballot Nov. 6 in a referendum on Prime Minister Michel Rocard's peace plan for New Caledonia. But with the help of voters in the South Pacific territory, the plan got a resounding 80 percent approval.
While the low turnout marks a nadir for Mr. Rocard, the peace plan marks a turning point for troubled New Caledonia.
For years, pro-independence Kanaks (natives islanders) and French loyalist settlers have fought over the territory. Twenty-eight people died in related violence earlier this year. New Caledonia appeared on the brink of civil war.
But when France's Socialist government came to power this year, Rocard made peace in the territory a priority. In August, the Matignon Accord was signed by leaders of New Caledonia's two major political parties on the left and right.
The accord, which voters approved, divides New Caledonia into three autonomous regions; two are likely to be under Kanak rule. It calls for an heavy injection of development funds into rural Kanak provinces that lag behind the predominately European-settled urban center of Noumea.
After 10 years of limited self-government, a plebiscite on the colony's independence will be held.
The accord is being hailed as a significant step toward peace. Six months ago, few would have predicted that reconciliation was possible. And if it weren't for French voter apathy, Rocard could claim a major victory.
The referendum marked the seventh time France's weary voters have gone to the polls this year. Despite an advertising blitz and appeals by Socialist leaders, the French just couldn't get excited about a colony 20,000 kilometers away.
In New Caledonia, turnout was higher (63 percent) and the vote much closer: 57 percent for, 43 percent against the plan.
Extremists on both the left and right campaigned vigorously against the Matignon Accord. The right-wing National Front claims New Caledonia's strong ``no'' vote shows it has usurped the place of the main French loyalist party, the Rally for New Caledonia in the French Republic, led by Jacques La Fleur. Mr. LeFleur gave up too much ground in the accord and no longer represents French settlers' views, it says.
Extremists on the other side criticized Jean-Marie Tjibaou, president of the main pro-independence party, the Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS), of giving too much away too. Ten years is too long to wait for an independence vote, they say, and the outcome then is too uncertain.
Doubts about individual aspects of the plan fueled the ``no'' vote, sources in New Caledonia say. The National Front may have picked up some support, but it is more likely that ``people are suspicious of Tjibaou and LaFleur suddenly working together [on the accord] after so many years of fighting,'' says a long-time Noumea resident.
Still, the majority have voted to make the Matignon Accord law. ``The entire population is tired of fights,'' says Jacques Boenigkih, an FLNKS member and Sydney-based economic development specialist. ``We all want to assure that there will be peace for 10 years.''