French voters handed the socialist government a hollow victory on Sunday, endorsing a peace plan for the South Pacific territory of New Caledonia but turning out in record low numbers to vote on the referendum.

Only 37 percent of the French electorate voted on the future of New Caledonia in a ballot on which Prime Minister Michel Rocard had staked his personal prestige. It was the highest abstention rate in any national poll this century.A litte over 80 percent of those who voted endorsed Rocard's plan, settled weeks after he came to power last May, which was hailed as rescuing the island chain from civil war between Kanak separatists and pro-French loyalists.

Opposition parliamentarians ranging from centrists to the extreme right said the referendum was a bitter defeat for Rocard and for socialist President Francois Mitterrand.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, head of the far-right National Front Party, the only group to call for a "no" vote, said Rocard had suffered a "bloody defeat" and that the referendum was invalid. Le Pen said Mitterrand should resign.

Alain Juppe, secretary-general of the conservative Rally for the Republic opposition party, said a future government that did not agree with the plan could change the law. Rocard's government says the accord cannot be reversed.

"Rocard suffered a personal failure because he obstinately persisted with the referendum despite the fact that the French saw no need for it," said Juppe.

The socialist prime minister, in office for six months, said the low turnout was "regrettable" but promised the peace plan would be put into operation immediately.