The conservative local government of this French overseas territory today appealed to the United States to heed "the potential danger of a new Cuba" in the South Pacific because of what it said were moves by the Socialist government in Paris to "abandon" the island to independence-seeking Kanaks.
In a statement entitled "An Appeal to the American People," the New Caledonian government elected Nov. 18 in voting boycotted by militant Kanaks, declared that Americans "ought to know that today a battle for human rights is about to be lost in the territory through indifference, cowardice, forgetfulness and culpable weakness in the face of a handful of terrorists representing but a small minority of the population."
The statement condemned as "illegal" a provisional government proclaimed Saturday by the Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front, a separatist party of indigenous Melanesians, or Kanaks, that has launched a campaign of violent agitation to turn this French-ruled island territory into an independent state called Kanaky.
The statement asked the United States to recognize the newly elected "legal government which France has not yet dared to dissolve but which it is trying to ignore."
The appeal came as a new French high commissioner, Edgard Pisani, arrived today to draw up plans for self-determination in the territory amid continuing violence and tension between French settlers and militant Kanaks.
To proponents of independence, the struggle over the future of this Pacific island represents the last gasp of French colonialism, whose shrinking empire is now limited to a few far-flung territories. To opponents, the struggle is over the wishes of a majority who want to maintain local autonomy but value ties to France. These opponents of independence maintain that the militant Kanaks number only a fraction of the population and field only 300 to 400 lightly armed fighters.
In incidents last night, Kanak militants shot and wounded two residents of French descent at a roadblock on the outskirts of Noumea and burned two uninhabited vacation homes in a suburb of the seaside capital, government officials said.
So far, at least one Kanak and one French settler have been killed in shooting incidents and about 10 persons have been wounded on both sides, including three French policemen, authorities said.
"There's no security any more in New Caledonia," said Franck Depierre, a local journalist who was shot in the right arm after turning back from a separatist roadblock. "Anybody can be shot. People are really scared in Noumea and terrified outside Noumea," he said as he lay in a hospital bed here.
A companion in the car he was driving, Maurice David, a local manager for the French UTA airline, was more seriously wounded in the stomach. To protest the shooting and what they called the failure of French police to maintain security, airport employes today staged a brief work stoppage, delaying hundreds of tourists who have continued to arrive for seaside vacations near Noumea.
New Caledonia was discovered in 1774 by Capt. James Cook, who gave the island its name because he said it reminded him of Scotland. It was settled by British and French missionaries and became a French colony in 1853. In World War II, New Caledonia was a base for allied forces, and it became an overseas territory of France in 1946.
While the capital today bore the look of a sleepy resort on the French Riviera, the tensions under the surface became evident as alarmed residents broadcast appeals on a local radio station to relatives in other towns to come to Noumea. Numerous radio messages tonight appealed for the evacuation of families of French descent in the town of Thio, which reportedly has been surrounded by armed Kanak militants led by Eloi Machoro, a radical separatist.
After arriving today, High Commissioner Pisani held talks with officials of the New Caledonian government, which is allied with the neo-Gaullist opponents of the French Socialist administration of President Francois Mitterrand.
The vice president and spokesman of the government here, Yves Magnier, a native-born New Caledonian of French origin, said Pisani "agreed with us on the urgent need to restore security" in the territory, but offered no details on how to proceed.
Magnier said he received assurances from Pisani that Paris was not recognizing or dealing with the provisional government proclaimed by Kanak militants and did not plan to meet separatist leaders until calm was restored.
"We got a little bit of hope," Magnier said. But he said he was dissatisfied because Pisani stopped short of "a formal condemnation of the actions of pillagers and terrorists" among the separatists.
Magnier charged that for ideological reasons, "The French Socialist government wants at all costs to be credited for succeeding in a decolonization operation." But he said a majority of the population of 142,000 -- consisting of 60,500 Melanesians, 52,000 of European heritage and 29,500 people of other races -- want to remain French. He pointed to the victory of the anti-independence party, the Rally for Caledonia in the Republic, in the November election with 70 percent of the vote, and said the militant Kanaks boycotted only because they were certain to lose.
The local government statement issued today further charged that the Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front was supported by Libya.
The government also said the front was receiving support from Vanuatu, an island that became independent from France and Britain in 1980 and now is being assisted by Cuban and North Korean advisers.
According to the government statement, while a referendum is planned for 1989 to decide on independence for the island, 1,200 miles east of Australia, or an extension of local autonomy under France, the militant Kanaks want a more immediate referendum in which only Melanesians, who account for 43 percent of the population, could vote.
French officials in Paris have indicated that the referendum might be moved up. One said Pisani has two months to formulate "the means by which the right of self-determination will be exercised."