Mitterrand, Chirac Clash Over Racial Conflict in Distant New Caledonia

Times Staff Writer

The French South Pacific territory of New Caledonia, preparing for a referendum on independence next month, does not have the same racial terror and oppression as South Africa. But there have been enough hints of a parallel in recent television coverage and political rhetoric to make many French worried about what is going on there.

The troubles in New Caledonia have provoked a rare open conflict between the two leaders who share executive powers in France, President Francois Mitterrand, a Socialist, and Premier Jacques Chirac, a conservative.

Mitterrand has accused the French police of brutality in the territory while Chirac has denounced leftists for exaggerating what he called “a completely banal incident.”

The latest controversy erupted last Saturday when French television ran film of white French riot police firing tear gas at 300 dark-skinned Melanesians and clubbing a large number of them to break up their nonviolent protest in the territory’s capital, Noumea, against the Sept. 13 referendum. Bernard Pons, the minister of overseas territories, had banned all demonstrations.

The images, which shocked many television viewers, would not have been shown in France if an Australian television crew had not been on the scene. The official French television station in the territory failed to cover the event, and television stations in France used the Australian footage.


‘Worst Excesses’

Denunciations came quickly. Roland Dumas, a Socialist and former foreign minister, said that “the images . . . reminded French of what is going on in South Africa and of the worst excesses from the era of colonial repression.”

The rhetoric of Dumas and others was probably powered by a good deal of political hyperbole. But, in response, the French government sounded much like the South African government when faced with similar denunciations. French officials accused their critics, both domestic and foreign, of exaggeration and hypocrisy.

Pons said that the police had simply employed “a certain amount of vigor” in dispersing an illegal demonstration by people trying to put “an intolerable pressure” on Melanesian voters to boycott the referendum.

Chirac took on official criticism from Australia and New Zealand by accusing them of trying to destabilize the French presence in the South Pacific. Considering what the Australians did to their aborigines and the New Zealanders to their Maoris, Chirac said, “their hypocrisy is shocking even if it is a bit in the Anglo-Saxon spirit.”

On top of this, whites in New Caledonia, much like whites in South Africa, began blaming journalists from the outside for their problems. They pushed television cameramen around during the week and tried to smash their equipment.

Change of Tactics

Since the clash last Saturday, Pons has changed tactics. The police allowed a second illegal demonstration of 600 Melanesians to run on for a while Wednesday before peacefully persuading their leaders to disband. That made the images on television less violent this week, but the footage still showed a large and armed force of white French police pitted against unarmed dark-skinned demonstrators.

Political conflict over the New Caledonia referendum is festering in France even though everyone is sure of the outcome and independent analysts agree that the referendum will not ease any of the long-range problems of the islands. There is no doubt that voters in the referendum will reject independence in favor of continued dependence on France.

The intractable problems of New Caledonia stem from the racial divisions of its 150,000 people. The Melanesians, known as Kanaks, are the original natives who still outnumber everyone else everywhere in the territory except in Noumea. From the point of view of history and geography, the Kanaks believe that New Caledonia belongs to them.

But more than half the population of New Caledonia is concentrated in the metropolitan area of Noumea. There are enough whites, Asians and Polynesians in Noumea to give them a majority of the territory’s population. The Kanaks make up 43% of the total population, the whites 37%, and the Asians and Polynesians 20%. From the point of view of population and votes, the whites and others believe that they should decide the fate of New Caledonia.

20 Killed in Rioting

Rioting broke out in 1984 after the Kanaks boycotted an election and declared an independent secessionist government. More than 20 people were killed before the crisis was calmed.

The Socialist government then tried to deal with the long-range problems by dividing the territory into four regions with local legislatures and by promising a referendum this year on a form of independence that would leave New Caledonia still legally associated with France.

The Socialists hoped to satisfy some of the demands of the Kanaks by letting them control three of the four regions of New Caledonia and to assuage the concerns of the whites by promising continued association with France even under independence. This compromise appealed to the Kanaks but was rejected by the whites.

When Chirac’s conservatives took control of the National Assembly in March, 1986, his Cabinet scrapped the Socialist plan. The regional governments were denuded of any funding or power. And a new referendum question on total independence was substituted for the question on independence-association. Since few people, even among Kanaks, wanted complete independence from France, the result was a foregone conclusion.

The main Kanak party, the Socialist Kanak Front for National Liberation, accused the Chirac government of following the line of the whites of New Caledonia and announced their boycott of the referendum. In response, the Chirac government banned all demonstrations and, at the end of June, augmented its force of gendarmes and riot police by 1,350, to 2,790 officers. In addition to the regular military garrison of more than 4,000 troops, that puts the territory’s security force at approximately 7,000, about one officer for every nine Kanaks. At least another 1,000 police are scheduled to arrive before referendum day.

Government Policies Attacked

Since Chirac came to power, Mitterrand has made it clear that he believes the conservative government’s policies are exacerbating the racial problems of New Caledonia.

After the violence last Saturday, he told a meeting of the cabinet, “How can one not be very sensitive to the images of brutality that were broadcast and even more to the reality that they represent? Nothing is worse than a chain reaction of violence. Individuals, social groups and ethnic groups that take part in our national life have the right to the same treatment and the same protection by the law.”

Under the French constitution, Mitterrand as president is the guarantor of “the national independence and territorial integrity” of France and presumably could act in New Caledonia if he feared great civil disorder there. But the constitution puts the day-to-day running of the country in the hands of the Chirac government. So far, Mitterrand has done no more than speak out against Chirac’s policies in New Caledonia without trying to stop them.