Even to French, Slain Leader was a Hero

NOT long ago the French derided Jean-Marie Tjibaou as a terrorist. But when the Melanesian leader was assassinated last week, his death produced an outpouring of genuine grief for a man lauded as a hero of compromise. Prime Minister Michel Rocard appeared on French television to eulogize the slain Tjibaou, saying ``the Melanesian community loses a generous leader, New Caledonia a man of reconciliation, and I, a friend.'' He then flew around the globe to attend the funeral. Except for far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, France's entire political community united to offer similar emotional tributes.

Tjibaou's transformation into hero in French eyes began a year ago when he signed a peace agreement with Jacques Lafleur, leader of the French settlers on the Pacific Island. Under the agreement, Tjibaou disavowed violence and agreed to delay the question of total independence in favor of greater autonomy.

Since then, he won the respect of Mr. Lafleur and mainstream French conservatives. ``I learned to admire him as an honorable man who you could talk to,'' a saddened Mr. Lafleur said.

The tragedy struck an additional resonant note here following the visit last week of Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat, who also has been transformed in the French view from terrorist into peacemaker. After Mr. Arafat declared void the PLO's charter calling for the destruction of Israel, extremist Palestinians threatened to assassinate him.

``One event follows another, the assassination of the Melanesian leaders follows the visit of [Yasser] Arafat to Paris,'' wrote Serge July, editor-in-chief of Liberation. ``The two events may not appear alike, but they underline how frail [any] peace process is, and how much it depends on a small, small number of exceptional, courageous men.''

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