Ajaccio, Corsica — It is an uneasy but welcome calm that hangs over this rugged Mediterranean island of sun-drenched beaches and snowcapped mountains. Exactly when the next attack -- bombs or bullets -- will come against French property or people, no one can say.
But this is certain: The place where Napoleon was born is quick becoming a burial ground for the system of government he so skillfully devised.
"Last year at this time," recalls a visitor from Paris, "in one night bombs planted by nationalists exploded at a French bank and at the main post office. It was a frightening period. This year, it is different."
So different, in fact, that in the past three months "only" 15 attacks have been recorded on the island, compared with 462 in 1980.
This spring, the clandestine separatist organization the Front de Liberation Nationale de la Corse (FLNC), called a "truce" in its long and vicious war against the French government, which has ruled the island a la Napoleon from faraway Paris through a tightly controlled centralized government.
When Socialist Francois Mitterrand was elected president in May, however, he moved quickly on his campaign pledge to decentralize the national government and transfer power from departmental prefects appointed in Paris to regional and departmental councils elected by the people. He also freed a batch of political prisoners, including 15 members of the FLNC. And the FLNC has since extended its no-bomb truce.
The decentralization plan will be applied speedily to all areas of France -- except Corsica (and Paris, for different reasons), where the situation is complicated by some nationalists who want more than even Mitterrand may be prepared to give. Interior Minister Gaston Defferre, responsible for implementing the plan, will visit Corsica this month to begin talks that could be long and difficult.
What radical Corsicans want is a country of their own. What moderates seek (and what is likely to be allowed by the new French government) is a measure of self- determination.
President Mitterrand has said that he will award Corsica a "statut particulier," and although government officials stop short of saying precisely what that means, they have made it clear that Corsica under Socialist Mitterrand will be much different than Corsica under Napoleonic Napoleon, and under former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing.
A bill sent to the French parliament last year by several Socialist deputies -- and now forming the basis for talks between the new government and Corsican officials -- would permit a hefty dose of self-rule, even over budgetary matters. Foreign and defense policy plus other sensitive areas would remain in Parisian hands. But there would be compulsory part-time education in the Corsican language, a "Corsization" of government bureaucracies on the island and probably the departure of what Corsican nationalists call the "forces de repression" -- i.e., French troops.
Also in the cards are all-Corsican radio and TV stations although no one is sure whether this will be enough for the FLNC and other militants. An FLNC spokesman told a Corsican newspaper recently that giving the island a "statut particulier" would create a political situation "we would have to take into consideration," but he added, "this is not the final solution for us. We will struggle against all solutions of this kind if they do not take the interest of our people into full account."
For most Corsicans, however, ("and remember, the militants are only a handful ," said a shopkeeper, echoing the view heard widely from the man in the street), the political change in Paris augers well.
Whether or not violence returns to Corsica depends perhaps most critically on how the FLNC emerges during the decentralization period. The movement has been almost completely consumed by the "antirepression" struggle of the past few years, becoming much more a military unit than a political force. Now it is being forced to redefine its role in the more "generous" period, as one Corsican put it, of the Mitterrand government.
Many corsicans fear a revival of terrorist attacks when it becomes clear, perhaps in the next few months, that Mitterrand has absolutely no intention of succumbing to pressure to meet nationalist demands for complete autonomy.
Says one government official in Ajaccio: "The FLNC has isolated itself terribly from the Corsican people. I'm afraid that the violence will begin when the movement discovers that Mitterrand cannot meets its every demand. Violence fits the logic of extremists. Only a small part of the FLNC will try to work seriously within the new democracy under Mitterrand. And the rest will turn to bombs again."