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Every so often the presence of two worlds on this narrow island in the South Pacific is aled by a letter in the local newspaper. Recently one such letter, from a Melanesian tribal leader, pointed out that it was contrary to Melanesian custom to appear nude on the beach and asked that all women dress modestly when they swim. Here in Noumea, the sunny, seaside, largely French capital of New Caledonia, such requests are not well respected.
That there is ''out there'' on the one hand and Noumea on the other has been a constant feature of life in this French territory for many years, but only in the last few months has the situation taken on major political ificance. Since November, the island has been preoccupied with a deadly serious struggle by a Melanesian independence party, the Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front, to regain exclusive sovereignty over the island, allowing the non-Melanesian residents of Noumea to remain in the country as foreign guests. Nineteen people have died in connection with the conflict, which divides largely - though not entirely - along ethnic lines.
And it is in this way that the difference between Noumea and the rest of New Caledonia enters the picture as a symbol of the failure of the two major groups on the island to knit themselves together. Noumea, in fact, is viewed as perhaps the most European town in the entire South Pacific, a collection of low pastel stucco houses with tropical green - palms, mango trees, awe-inspiring banyans - burgeoning among them.
The town is casual, languid, filled with restaurants and cafes. Among the products that seem to sell well here are cosmetics, gold earrings for young men, Mercedes cars and the bottom parts of very small bikinis.
Much grilled lobster and muscadet is consumed on the strip along the lagoon. Millions of dollars worth of pleasure boats rock in the harbor.
There are supermarkets, pizza parlors, kiddie rides, an aeronautics club, a race track, a casino, a Club Med - and what must be one of the largest per capita concentrations of nightclubs and discoth eques in the world. Until today most of them were closed under a state of emergency imposed by France on Jan. But because the French National Assembly did not approve an extension of the 9 P. Last weekend, when President Francois Mitterrand paid a hour visit here for talks with quarreling factions, it did not come as a surprise that he was greeted with a huge demonstration - its sponsors are claiming that over half of the town's 60, people showed up for it - protesting the idea of independence, of losing the status of a French overseas territory.
Perhaps most different these days is the small mining town of Thio, over a ridge of verdant mountains from Noumea, a drive of two hours past French Army checkpoints, waterfalls and ravines. Thio, the nickel mining center of New Caledonia, was barricaded by the Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front in November and abandoned by the majority of its European inhabitants.
It now stands empty, a symbol of the tensions that have gripped the island.
Thio in fact is not entirely empty since a few people, including many of its Melanesian inhabitants, stayed through all of the troubles. But it is certainly nothing like Noumea, which is relatively untouched by tension. The man stood in his shop, outside of which was an eerily quiet street with shut-down homes and cafes, their stucco walls smeared with political graffiti warning that if independence is not granted ''the next time it will be worse.
Along the road to Thio are what are known here as tribal lands, areas reserved by the Government for the original Melanesian inhabitants of the area. They have names like the Tribe of St. Philippe, the Tribe of St. Michel and the Tribe of St. Pierre, reflecting the influence of the Roman Catholic missionaries who began converting the Melanesians more than a century ago. The tribal villages are places of corrugated tin shacks crouching beneath groves of mango where, at least in this part of the island, a sense of grievance against the French runs strong.
Philippe and the mother of four children, said. The man, who talked to a visitor seated on a patch of grass next to a shack, said that despite years of mining activities life has not materially improved for the Melanesians.
His argument is confirmed by figures published in a New Caledonia census, which shows something close to nonparticipation by the native peoples in the modern sector. In all of New Caledonia, for example, only four native Melanesians headed enterprises with 10 or more employees, compared with Europeans, two Indonesians, three Tahitians and nine Vietnamese. There are seven middle-level administrators among the Melanesians compared with Europeans, according to the census figures.
Philippe said. A hawk fluttered overhead; a column of smoke from a distant fire drifted over the face of a nearby mountain.
View on timesmachine. TimesMachine is an exclusive benefit for home delivery and digital subscribers. To preserve these articles as they originally appeared, The Times does not alter, edit or update them. Occasionally the digitization process introduces transcription errors or other problems; we are continuing to work to improve these archived versions. Constant Feature of Life ''Ever since I came here,'' the shopkeeper went on, having explained that he arrived from France, a refugee from unemployment, four years ago, ''it's been Noumea on the one hand and, on the other, it's been out there, it's the rest, it's the bush.
A Multitude of Nightclubs Noumea, in fact, is viewed as perhaps the most European town in the entire South Pacific, a collection of low pastel stucco houses with tropical green - palms, mango trees, awe-inspiring banyans - burgeoning among them. Town Is Largely Abandoned But as the shopkeeper said it is different elsewhere on this island.New Caledonia woman nude
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