PARIS — France ordered 1,000 reinforcements to New Caledonia on Saturday as a state of emergency restrained violence but failed to quiet the rancor in the troubled South Pacific territory.
The state of emergency had been declared by the French government earlier in the day as the latest outburst of violence left three dead and many injured. In the most sensational incident, French gendarmes killed two Melanesian separatists in a gun battle.
The racial bitterness in the remote islands was etched for the French as they watched scenes on television news of white settlers deliriously hugging gendarmes after hearing that Eloi Machoro, 40, regarded as the most militant Melanesian of all, was one of the two killed.
As he announced the dispatch of additional forces, Premier Laurent Fabius professed some optimism for acceptance in the colony of a French offer for independence in 1986 that would be combined with continuing legal association with France.
That proposal, announced last Monday by Edgard Pisani, the French government's special representative in New Caledonia, has run into resistance from both whites who want to remain a part of France and Melanesians who want independence. But many French officials and political analysts for French newspapers had thought, at least until the latest oubreak of violence, that the proposal was negotiable.
"The proposal was and remains reasonable," Fabius said in a televised statement.
But others felt that the chances for compromise had been lessened greatly by the latest bloodshed. Le Monde, France's most respected newspaper, headlined the day's events as "The Rupture" and said that the death of Machoro had jeopardized chances for a negotiated settlement.
The Melanesian independence party, known as FLNKS from its initials in French, issued a communique stating that "this barbarous act puts an end to all the Pisani proposals, and we go back to the beginning."
In his statement, Fabius did not specify the kind of reinforcements that he was sending to New Caledonia. Government sources told the French news agency that 600 gendarmes and 480 riot police would arrive on the islands within 24 hours, swelling the total of police there to 3,280. There also are 3,000 French soldiers stationed in the colony.
New Caledonia has a population of only 145,000, but it is divided in a way that guarantees tension. The Melanesians, who are known as Kanaks, make up the largest single group on the islands, but they are outnumbered by the combination of whites and Asians from other countries.
Eighteen people have been killed since the first outburst of violence in mid-November, when Kanaks boycotted elections for a territorial assembly and tried to declare an independent Kanak state. Since then, there has been continual rioting by both whites and Kanaks, with occasional outbursts of killing.
Calm appeared to return to New Caledonia on Saturday with the declaration of a state of emergency. Police patrolled the streets of the capital, Noumea, and enforced a 7 p.m.-to-6 a.m. curfew.
That was in extraordinary contrast with the situation a day before, when whites battled police in the streets of the capital, throwing rocks, bottles and gasoline bombs at the officers. The crowds also set fire to buildings and cars and looted stores. The targets were mainly the property of Melanesians and others sympathetic to independence.
The whites were protesting both the Pisani independence proposals and the killing, apparently in a clash with separatists, of a 17-year-old white on his father's farm near the northwestern town of Thio.
The mood of the rioting whites changed, however, when they heard the news of the killing of the two separatists. Instead of throwing rocks at the gendarmes, the whites began to embrace them.
According to the police account of those killings, gendarmes had surrounded a group of Melanesian separatists at another farm near Thio. Instead of surrendering their arms as ordered, the police said, the Melanesians began shooting. Gendarmes were then ordered to fire, the police said, but only with the intent of wounding. Machoro and an associate, Marcel Nonaro, moved as they were shot, the police said, and were killed.
Police arrested 34 Kanaks after the shootings.
Machoro, who had made two trips to Libya seeking support for independence, was regarded as the most militant Kanak separatist in New Caledonia. His band was the last to dismantle roadblocks on New Caledonia after Pisani was sent to the colony in early December to try to negotiate a compromise solution.
Aside from imposing a curfew, the state of emergency bans demonstrations, the carrying of weapons and any gathering of more than five people.