President Francois Mitterrand attempted tonight to counter growing criticism of the way his Socialist administration has handled a crisis in the French territory of New Caledonia by announcing that he will fly to the Pacific island chain Thursday.

The surprise announcement was made in reply to a question during a television interview widely seen here as the start of a new initiative by Mitterrand to recapture lost popularity before parliamentary elections next year. He said the elections would be held under a new system based on proportional representation.

Mitterrand also used his long-awaited television appearance to signal his approval for the launching of a chain of private TV stations in France. The move will bring to an end a state monopoly over television that has provided French governments with a valued propaganda tool.

The flurry of important domestic policy pronouncements suggested that Mitterrand intends to move to the political offensive after a succession of setbacks at home and abroad. His decision to visit New Caledonia, which was placed under a state of emergency less than a week ago following a surge of communal violence, is reminiscent of his sudden trip to Beirut in October 1983 following the suicide bomb attacks against French and U.S. military headquarters there.

The crisis in New Caledonia, whose population of 140,000 is divided among native Kanaks, French settlers and Asian immigrants, has become a major political issue here. A government plan to grant the territory qualified independence in "association" with France has been rejected by right-wing political parties who insist that it should remain French.

Rejecting opposition charges that the government intended to abandon New Caledonia and would allow the island to be turned into a "Soviet aircraft carrier" in the Pacific, Mitterrand said France would maintain its political and military presence in the region. Asked if he was prepared to visit the territory, he replied: "Yes, I will go." Asked when, he said: "Tomorrow."

When the interviewer asked incredulously, "Tomorrow, Thursday?" Mitterrand replied: "Yes, tomorrow, Thursday."

Mitterrand will arrive in New Caledonia at an exceptionally difficult moment, with the government's representative on the island, Edgard Pisani, under attack by both Kanak separatists and white settlers. The island is under dusk-to-dawn curfew following riots in the capital, Noumea, and the shooting by police of two leading Kanak rebels.

The leader of the self-proclaimed Kanak government accused Pisani yesterday of agreeing to the "murder" of the two separatists. Pisani has also been called a "murderer" by white protesters in Noumea angry at the security force's inability to prevent killings of European settlers.

Under a plan announced by Pisani last week, people who have lived in New Caledonia for at least three years will be asked to vote on the independence plan in July. On television tonight, Mitterrand did not rule out the possibility of holding a similar referendum in France.

The late Charles de Gaulle frequently used referendums and there has been speculation here that Mitterrand might use the same political tactic if he can find a suitable issue. Talking to reporters at a New Year's reception, however, he said the problem was to find a subject for a referendum that he could be confident of winning.

While parliamentary elections must be held before June 1986, Mitterrand's own mandate as president is not due to expire until 1988. This has raised the possibility of a potentially destabilizing division of power between a left-wing president and a right-wing National Assembly.

With Mitterrand's own standing in the opinion polls now down to 30 percent, his Socialist Party seems headed for defeat in the elections. Political analysts say, however, that the expected swing to the right could be reduced by introduction of a system of proportional representation that might allow Mitterrand to govern from the center during the last two years of his mandate.

Asked tonight about his plans for electoral reform, Mitterrand said the government would introduce a degree of proportional representation in time for the 1986 elections. Such a measure was envisaged in his party's platform for the 1981 elections. He gave no details of the changes.

Confirming that he had given the go-ahead for private television stations, Mitterrand said that it was necessary to strike a balance between "freedom" and "anarchy." A government commission has been set up to draft firm proposals within three months for relaxing state controls.

About 50 private television consortiums -- including several controlled by the right-wing opposition -- have put in bids for government approval. The most recent was filed this week by the publisher of the right-wing newspaper Le Figaro, Robert Hersant, a fierce opponent of the Socialist Party.

Mitterrand, interviewed in the Elysee presidential palace, used wall charts to defend his government's unpopular economic policies. He claimed a major success in bringing inflation down from 14 percent in 1981 to 6.7 percent last year but conceded that unemployment had risen to a record 2.4 million during his term in office.

An embarrassing technical glitch blacked out the president in the middle of a John F. Kennedy-style peroration, as he said: "Instead of asking what your country -- France -- can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." The same line has been used by his prime minister, Laurent Fabius, in an attempt to make the government's economic austerity policies more palatable.

A state television spokesman said the temporary blackout was caused by a break in electric current after an oil-powered generator froze in Europe's current cold spell. could be reduced by introduction of a system of proportional representation that might allow Mitterrand to govern from the center during the last two years of his mandate.

Asked tonight about his plans for electoral reform, Mitterrand said the government would introduce a degree of proportional representation in time for the 1986 elections. Such a measure was envisaged in his party's platform for the 1981 elections. He gave no details of the changes.

Confirming that he had given the go-ahead for private television stations, Mitterrand said that it was necessary to strike a balance between "freedom" and "anarchy." A government commission has been set up to draft firm proposals within three months for relaxing state controls.

About 50 private television consortiums -- including several controlled by the right-wing opposition -- have put in bids for government approval. The most recent was filed this week by the publisher of the right-wing newspaper Le Figaro, Robert Hersant, a fierce opponent of the Socialist Party.

Mitterrand, interviewed in the Elysee presidential palace, used wall charts to defend his government's unpopular economic policies. He claimed a major success in bringing inflation down from 14 percent in 1981 to 6.7 percent last year but conceded that unemployment had risen to a record 2.4 million during his term in office.

An embarrassing technical glitch blacked out the president in the middle of a John F. Kennedy-style peroration, as he said: "Instead of asking what your country -- France -- can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." The same line has been used by his prime minister, Laurent Fabius, in an attempt to make the government's economic austerity policies more palatable.

A state television spokesman said the temporary blackout was caused by a break in electric current after an oil-powered generator froze in Europe's current cold spell.