NOUMEA, New Caledonia — On this South Seas island that is as French as France itself, there are troubling whispers of another time on the soft breeze. They are an echo from Algeria, where colonial France hung on for too long and paid a price that scarred both France and Algeria.
Having been bypassed by the wave of decolonization that swept Africa in the 1960s and the South Pacific in the 1970s and early 1980s, many Melanesians of New Caledonia, an overseas French territory, say the time has come for independence here.
But like almost everyone else in the region, they do not want to see a French exodus that could create a vacuum and open the door for unwelcome outside meddlers.
The French colons , whose roots here go back 134 years to when Napoleon III annexed New Caledonia as a penal colony, respond that this is their land, too, and some of them--at least the extremist fringe supported by right-wing whites in Brisbane, Australia--talk of fighting to keep it, of perhaps making a Rhodesian-style declaration of unilateral independence.
Tension resulting from this racial standoff led to violence in 1984 and 1985, and to 25 fatalities. It has put France on the defensive regionally, brought criticism of Premier Jacques Chirac's government in Paris from allies in Australia and New Zealand, and created what Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister Paias Wingti calls "the gravest threat to stability in the South Pacific."
In an attempt to defuse the issue and establish France's legitimacy here, Chirac is pushing ahead with a referendum, scheduled for Sept. 13, in which New Caledonia's 145,000 people--43% are Melanesian, 38% French--will be asked to decide whether they want independence or continued association with France. On June 13, a group of 39 French magistrates arrived to organize the election process.
France says it will abide by the outcome. But if the voters choose independence, the Chirac government intends to do what France did in 1958, when the West African nation of Guinea rejected Charles de Gaulle's offer of association with France in favor of full independence: It will pull out overnight, ending its annual subsidy of $320 million and taking home its 4,800 civil servants and 6,800 soldiers and policemen.
In Guinea, this led to economic collapse and the radicalization of Sekou Toure's government, which turned to the Soviet Union for help.
"If this becomes an independent country," said Philippe Berges, the senior political adviser to the French high commissioner in Noumea, "the teachers will go and there will be no one to teach; the army will go, and there will be no one to provide security; the civil servants will go, and there will be no one to run the government."
But this does not appear to be imminent. Because the 19% of the population that are Polynesian, Vietnamese and Asian usually side with the French politically, the dark-skinned Melanesians are a minority in their own country.
The five Melanesian independence parties, united under the banner of the Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS), intend to boycott the referendum, making rejection of independence a virtual certainty. They plan to protest the vote with a nonviolent march to Noumea that the independence leader, Jean-Marie Tjibaou, an Anglican priest educated at the Sorbonne in Paris, hopes will attract as many as 10,000 people.
Australia and the other South Pacific nations believe France's take-it-or-leave-it attitude precludes the possibility of any lasting solution in New Caledonia. Relations between France and Australia have become so frayed over France's South Pacific policies that France expelled the Australian consul general here earlier this year. The Australian government does not plan to replace him on a permanent basis until it sees what it considers to be a more constructive French policy in the Pacific.
Even French President Francois Mitterrand has joined the dissenting voices, calling the referendum "a historical mistake" because the pro-independence parties are playing no role.
Australia's minister of foreign affairs, Bill Hayden, said in a recent speech in Sydney: "We support the continued presence of France as an influential factor in maintaining the region as part of the Western community. But we maintain that it should be the kind of presence that the people of the region consider acceptable and constructive.
"My abiding concern--and I don't say this lightly--is that a major factor in the force for unification in the region will be opposition to France brought on by its policies on nuclear testing and New Caledonia. This would be inimical to Australian and Western interests."