France's troubled Pacific territory of New Caledonia could achieve a qualifed form of independence from the beginning of next year under a plan unveiled today by a French government delegate appointed to defuse a growing political crisis on the island.
Outlining the plan in a radio broadcast, Edgard Pisani urged islanders to vote in favor of independence "in association with France" in a referendum in July. He said his proposals were designed to meet the concerns of both the French settlers and the indigenous Kanaks, some of whom have been involved in a series of bloody clashes over the independence issue.
The disturbances on New Caledonia, which have led to 13 deaths during the past two months, have embarrassed the Socialist government of President Francois Mitterrand, which has been accused by the right-wing opposition of not doing enough to assure law and order on the island.
New Caledonia is one of France's few remaining overseas territories. Last month, Kanak separatists set up their own provisional government after boycotting local elections, which were won by a political party that favored continued union with France.
Pisani said that both sides would have to make concessions in order to guarantee peace and stability on the island, which lies on the opposite side of the globe from the French mainland between Australia and Tahiti.
"The best solution, probably the only one, is independence -- but in association with France," he said.
The status of an independent nation "associated with France" was envisaged in the 1958 Gaullist constitution as an option for French African colonies then in the process of gaining their independence. Until now, however, it has not been used. Under the treaty proposed by Pisani, the island would become a full member of the United Nations but France would retain responsibility for defense and public order.
A French possession since 1853, New Caledonia served in the 19th century as a place of deportation for French convicts, including the families of members of the revolutionary Paris commune that was crushed in 1871. Its present population is made up of about 60,000 Kanaks, or Melanesians, 50,000 whites, and 30,000 others, largely Asian, of immigrant origin.
The Pisani plan immediately was attacked by leaders of the island's neo-Gaullist party, which won local elections in November at the start of what was intended to be a gradual process of granting self-determination to the territory by 1989.
Parts of the new proposal had been leaked to French newspapers in what observers said was a calculated attempt to test likely reaction. Describing the plan as "a serious error," Gaullist ex-prime minister Michel Debre accused the government of "abandoning its responsibilities" in an area of important strategic significance for France.
Socialist Party leader Lionel Jospin described the proposals as an imaginative attempt to deal with the ethnic tensions in New Caledonia and prevent a massive emigration of white settlers such as occurred following the independence of Algeria. The Pisani plan now will be submitted to Mitterrand for approval, but there seems little doubt that it will be accepted as government policy.
Under the arrangements announced today, voting in the July referendum would be restricted to residents of New Caledonia of at least three years' standing. Political analysts said that by defranchising about 5,500 predominantly white electors, most of whom would have voted for continued union with France, this measure would be likely to increase the chances of the independence plan being approved.
Pisani has also proposed a special autonomous status for the island's capital, Noumea, which is largely inhabited by whites. He said islanders would be given a choice of whether to become citizens of New Caledonia or to retain French nationality.