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Vote Fails to Set New Caledonia's Course

September 30, 1985|STANLEY MEISLER | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — The Socialist Kanak Front for National Liberation, the main independence party, won control of three of the four regions of New Caledonia in elections Sunday that failed to clarify the future of the troubled French territory.

Jean-Marie Tjibaou, the former priest who heads the Kanak Front, cited the party's victories as evidence that "independence now appears to be inevitable." But the results showed that the voters in the South Pacific archipelago as a whole rejected independence. Anti-independence parties took almost 61% of the total vote, but much of their strength was concentrated in a single region, the white settler bastion of Noumea, the territorial capital.

The French government in Paris has been trying to push the racially-divided territory toward a special kind of independence that would allow the islands a seat at the United Nations but keep them still legally associated with France.

The regional divisions for the election were obviously weighted in favor of the Melanesian people who are the original inhabitants of the islands but now make up only a minority of the total population. The single region of Noumea has more population than the three other regions combined.

While the Rally for Caledonia in the Republic, the main anti-independence group, was sweeping Noumea, the Kanak Front was taking the North Region and the Loyaute Islands easily. There was a close battle in the Central Region, and the Kanaks won control of the regional council there by only five seats to four.

Election Turnout High

The regional councils and their council presidents are expected to have a good deal of autonomy, but they will also meet together as a territorial congress. The Kanak Front, while it controls three of the regional councils, will not control the congress. There, the Rally will have 25 seats, the Kanak Front 16, the extreme right-wing and anti-independence National Front 3, and a moderate independence party, 1.

Voter turnout was high, marking a complete change from the last elections in November, 1984, when the Melanesians, who are known as Kanaks, boycotted the elections. Their boycott and their attempt to declare independence afterwards led to widespread racial violence that has killed more than 20 people.

The Socialist government in Paris set its goal as independence-association and set up the new regional councils to temper the anger of the Kanaks. A referendum on independence has been promised by the end of 1987.

But, during the campaign, Mayor Jacques Chirac of Paris who heads the Gaullist party in France, promised that, if the conservatives take control of the French National Assembly as expected next March, he will try to reverse the government's moves toward independence.

In trying to deal with the problems of New Caledonia, a French territory since 1853, the French government must face some difficult population statistics. Of the 145,000 residents, 62,000 or 42.5% are Kanaks, 54,000 or 37.1% are white, and 29,000 or 20.4% are Polynesians, Indians and others. The big question for any government deciding the future of the territory is whether history, which is on the side of the Kanaks, should have more weight than population.

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