ANOTHER FARAWAY place that most of us have never heard of, and could not locate on a map if our lives depended on it, has suddenly become -- at least for a while -- an international trouble spot. This time it is a French territory in the Pacific, 750 miles from Australia, with the improbable name of New Caledonia. It never mattered except to the 140,000 or so people who lived there, but now it also matters, considerably, to the French. They face parliamentary elections next year in which President Francois Mitterrand's handling of New Caledonia seems likely to be an important issue. He visited the territory Saturday for 12 hours -- which was half as long as it took for him to fly there.
The issue bears a strong family resemblance, as almost all colonial issues do, to Algeria, for whose affairs Mr. Mitterrand was the responsible minister in the 1950s. There is a group of French settlers, and some others, who wish to stay with France, and there is a group of native Melanesians, known as Kanaks, and some others, who wish independence. Things started to get violent on a small but distubring scale late last year. In response, the French offered a plan for limited independence -- independence "in association" with France. A referendum on the plan is scheduled for next July. If it is approved, France will remain in charge of defense and internal security, and the settlers will keep their French citizenship but also will vote in local elections. Nonetheless, the settlers fear being sold out, and the Kanaks find the plan a denial of their claim to sovereignty.
In the seemingly endless series of colonial endgames, the Western nations not immediately involved almost always have a clear idea of what the Western nation that is involved should do: let go as gracefully as possible, sooner rather than later, before the costs in the territory and the political costs at home get out of hand. For all the West's experience in this kind of political activity, however, it never is easy for the involved country to take such advice. It tends to resent receiving it, even from its friends. One nation's embarrassment, then, often becomes a matter of alliance-wide concern. Inevitably, apprehensions come to be voiced that the Soviets, if they are not actually manipulating the scene, stand to profit from it.
Perhaps it will be different in New Caledonia. Perhaps Mr. Mitterrand will manage to find a clever, peaceful way to preserve the rights and privileges of Europeans in a place whose native population becomes increasingly determined to have independence. If he does succeed, however, it will be a first.