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By Michael J. Field

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (April 26, 1998 - Agence France-Presse)---France, which first arrived in the South Pacific in the 18th Century, is poised, thanks to a new agreement with New Caledonia, to remain the region's dominant colonial power well into the new millennium.

France, with its colonies in New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna and French Polynesia, has resisted the world wars and the winds of change which saw, over a century, Spain, Germany, Japan and Britain come, and go.

Today the only South Pacific colonial territories not under the Tricolour that are significant: Tokelau under New Zealand, the U.S.'s American Samoa and Britain's lonely Pitcairn Island.

The only surrender by France came in 1980 when it gave up the New Hebrides, the Anglo-French condominium which became Vanuatu.

The pro- and anti-independence forces of New Caledonia last Tuesday struck a deal with Paris on providing for a vote on autonomy later this year. They appear to have taken a big step away from independence.

The 200,000 inhabitants will vote later in December on whether or not to give New Caledonia its own government and greater powers of autonomy. A referendum on independence will be held within 15 to 20 years.

The agreement followed two months of talks between the government, the separatist Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) and the loyalist Rally for Caledonia in the Republic (RPCR).

A 1988 agreement, known as the Matignon Accords, ended unrest between the two sides by pledging a referendum this year on self-determination.

France first met the Pacific when Count Louis Antoine de Bougainville arrived off Tahiti on April 6, 1768. His obvious enchantment with it was reflected in his writings, which sparked the concept of the "noble savage" and the Pacific paradise.

New Caledonia was first visited by a white man, Englishman James Cook, in 1774 and did not see a Frenchman, d'Entrecasteaux, until 1792. In 1842 French naval officers claimed the various groups that now make up French Polynesia. Wallis and Futuna followed and in 1853 the French flag was raised over New Caledonia, which became a penal colony.

As Pacific states won their independence, regional leaders began to focus on France, notably for its nuclear testing at Moruroa Atoll and the future of New Caledonia. The latter became the primary issue when on May 5, 1988, French troops stormed a cave on Ouvea where Kanak nationalists had been holding several gendarmes hostage. During the capture, four gendarmes were killed, while in the raid on May 5, three soldiers and 19 Kanaks died.

Three Kanaks, including leader Alphonse Dianou, were alleged to have been killed after surrender.

A year later, on May 4, 1989, FLNKS leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou and associate Yeiwene Yeiwene, were assassinated by Melanesian extremists.

Pacific Forum summits tended to adopt stronger language in communiqués a decade ago, clearly supporting "the aspirations and goals of the people of New Caledonia, including the Kanak Community."

The Forum first sent a mission to Noumea in 1991and while it said it was impressed by France's "genuine efforts" it was concerned "that a recurring issue was the differences in interpretation of what the accords were meant to achieve."

In 1991 they were saying 10 years was not enough time to allow Kanak people to make a meaningful decision on their future in 1998.

The latest Forum mission, the August 1997 group led by Fiji's Senator Filipe Bole, noted tensions had been defused but saw problems in a growing youth population, increasing immigration from France and unemployment.

The Forum summit endorsed the report and urged all parties in New Caledonia to "maintain their commitment to reaching a negotiated solution... that takes into account the wishes of all the communities, including concerns on the changing demographic composition of New Caledonia."

With the ending of nuclear testing three years ago France has notably become more involved in the Pacific, becoming one of the larger aid donors and is a key partner in fisheries monitoring and disaster relief.

Ironically, after the other European powers have gone, there is a sense in the Pacific that it is useful to have France around.

Michael J. Field Agence France-Presse Auckland, New Zealand TEL: (64 21) 688-438 FAX: (64 21) 694-035 E-MAIL:

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