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France Surprise Trip: Mitterrand flies into trouble

4 minute read

It was meant as a soothing dose of diplomacy for a strife-torn territory–and an antidote to criticism at home. French President Francois Mitterrand last week made a sudden visit to the French Pacific-island territory of New Caledonia, where at least 18 people have been killed since November in an increasingly bitter struggle over independence. After announcing the trip in a nationally televised interview, Mitterrand said he was going to the troubled territory to “express what I believe to be reason” and to show support for French Special Envoy Edgard Pisani, author of a controversial independence plan for the islands.

Soon after the President’s jetliner touched down at Tontouta Airport, he was taken by helicopter to the New Caledonian capital of Noumea, 33 miles away. He was met by 25,000 anti-independence demonstrators waving French flags, singing the Marseillaise and displaying banners that read “Caledonie Francaise Toujours.” In the morning, Mitterrand held meetings with Pisani and leaders on both sides of the independence issue.

The President’s visit came five days after France had dispatched 1,000 extra gendarmes and paratroopers to New Caledonia. The contingent had been sent to reinforce the territory’s 2,280-man French security force after confrontations two weeks ago between native Melanesians, known as Kanaks, and predominantly French settlers, called caldoches, left three people dead, prompting Special Envoy Pisani to declare a state of emergency.

The latest in a series of sporadic disturbances over the past two months began on Jan. 11, when a 17-year-old French settler was killed, allegedly by Kanak militants. The shooting brought a mob of 1,500, mainly made up of caldoches, into the streets of Noumea, where they hurled rocks and bottles at police. Tensions increased the next day when at least 100 gendarmes surrounded a farmhouse near La Foa, 55 miles northwest of the capital. There, Eloi Machoro, a leader of the Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front, a militant Separatist party, and 50 of his followers were gathered. In a dawn raid, Machoro and one of his aides, Marcel Nornaro, were killed. Jean-Marie Tjibaou, the president of a provisional Kanak government formed last month by the Liberation Front, charged that Machoro had been “assassinated” with Pisani’s blessing. New Caledonia’s High Commission had already issued a report claiming the deaths had been accidental.

The renewed violence hardened attitudes on both sides toward Pisani’s independence plan. The proposal is an attempt to forge a compromise between two groups: the Kanaks, who make up a minority (42.5%) of the population of 145,000, and the caldoches and Asian and South Pacific immigrants, who are in the majority. Under the Pisani plan, New Caledonia would become a sovereign nation but remain “associated” with France, which has ruled it since 1853. Political representatives of the French settlers have already rejected the plan because, they claim, it would give the Kanaks effective control. Machoro’s death also turned moderate Kanaks against the proposal. “We will stay open to discussion, but we will not negotiate at all for the sovereignty of our country,” Tjibaou told the 2,000 mourners who had gathered for Machoro’s funeral procession.

In Paris, 2,000 separatist sympathizers marched outside Premier Laurent Fabius’ office, chanting “Mitterrand killer!” Jacques Chirac, the mayor of Paris and leader of the rightist Rally for the Republic party, called for the suspension of the Pisani plan. Mitterrand, however, remained firmly committed to the proposal.

The French President’s surprise visit was viewed as an attempt to bolster his popularity at home before local elections in March and next year’s parliamentary ballot. “Mitterrand is trying to disengage himself from overseas torments,” said one government official.

By week’s end New Caledonians were enjoying an uneasy peace. The nightly curfew had been pushed back from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. In Noumea, restaurants and hotels were virtually empty. Before boarding his plane for the 12,000-mile trip back to Paris, Mitterrand spoke optimistically of his twelve-hour visit. “The threads which were feared to have been cut are tied again,” he said. “The dialogue continues.”

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