Mitterrand's decentralization plan trips over Corsica

In this village of 180 people on Corsica's western coast, time seems to stand still.

The setting is freshly beautiful, with houses perched on mountainsides separated by narrow streets and surrounded by scrub vegetation. In the village's one cafe, men talk of ''clans'' and ''vendettas.''

With such terminology still in use here, it is easy to understand why Corsica is such a problem for the French government in Paris. The Coriscan penchant for violence and insularity, combined with more than 200 years of neglect by Paris, has turned the island into a backward, impoverished region, wracked by separatists seething under centralization and dominated locally by political clans.

The government of Francois Mitterrand tried to ease the island's difficulties Aug. 8 by sponsoring Corsica's first election for an island-wide assembly with significant powers. The elections were the first stage of the Socialists' ambitious decentralization program, and President Mitterrand was looking to put a modern, forward-looking Socialist Party in the driver's seat.

But things did not work out that way. Split by internal feuding, the Socialists captured only 5 percent of the vote. And on the right, a young, moderate conservative, Jose Rossi, received just a bit more.

Now, the old-style conservative bosses will be the largest party in the new assembly, with the balance of power between right and left in the hands of a radical autonomist party. This result could lead to prolonged instability for the island, or even worse, may turn into an explosive mix -- the clans fervently pro-French and the autonomists insisting on much more local control over Corsican affairs.

''I just hope it doesn't end up like (Northern) Ireland,'' one young Corsican said.

Although it has been part of France for more than 200 years, Corsica's relationship with Paris has always been tense. When France bought the island from the Genoese in 1768, it had just achieved a brief but heady independence after centuries of colonization.

Fresh hopes for independence arose during the French Revolution. But Napoleon , a Coriscan himself who had expressed ardent independence sentiments in his youth, ended up becoming the most efficient centralizer of them all.

It is symbolic and ironic then, that one of the election's big winners turned out to be the Bonapartist party of Charles Napoleon Ornano. Ornano is the mayor of Ajaccio, the island's capital and Napoleon's birthplace, and the conservative clan's leader in the southwestern part of this island.

In Ajaccio, as elsewhere in Corsica, the attitude is: ''You don't vote for an ideology but for a friend, or even better yet, a family member.'' With only 227, 000 residents and 1,037 candidates everyone seemed to be voting for a ''cousin.''

''Ornano is our friend,'' said one man sitting on a bench outside Ajaccio's town hall.

''I am not a clan chief,'' Mr. Ornano himself added. But there he stood in back of the polls, slapping every voter affectionately on the face and often kissing the women. ''I know everyone in town,'' he admitted.

What does it mean to be a Bonapartist today?

''Oh no, I don't want to be a new emperor,'' he says, ''I just like to think I represent the values of Napoleon -- honor, intelligence, and efficiency.''

In practical terms, this means Ornano would be classified as a conservative. ''I hate communists, but neither am I a capitalist,'' he says. ''I want us to retain our way of life and develop Corsica slowly, with tourism, agriculture, and small industry. Very small industry.''

He is also passionately attached to France, just like his namesake. ''My father always loved Bonaparte,'' he said, explaining how he received the name. ''And just like Napoleon and my father, I have fought with the French Army. How can anybody say I am not French?''

Not all Corsicans feel that way, though. ''We're different from the rest of France, with a different history, language, and culture,'' says one autonomist. ''We don't want to be imposed upon or neglected any longer.''

Corsica's population, 323,000 in 1920, was down to 180,000 in 1957. Mountain agriculture was allowed to wither and villages died, while Corsicans swelled the ranks of the French Army, civil service, and colonial service.

''We used to be able to feed ourselves,'' the autonomists say. ''Now we have to import everything.''

In 1957, the French government finally decided to develop the island. It launched a corporation to irrigate land and another corporation to launch tourism.

But most of the new land was given to pied noir settlers fleeing from Algeria and other French colonies. And tourism was developed with such massive injections from the mainland that many islanders continue to complain that they are being invaded, ''albeit peacefully.''

Finally in the mid-1970s, the recession took away jobs for the young on the continent. Nationalism exploded under the leadership of Edmond Simeoni.

Mr. Simeoni organized the occupation of a wine cellar at Aleria belonging to a settler known to be involved in financial fraud. The government sent more than a 1,000 troops to remove him, and in the ensuing shootout, two policemen were killed. Mr. Simeoni served three years in prison.

Today, after pulling just more than 10 percent of the vote, he hopes to become the island assembly's first president. His talk has moderated, but the politician behind the surface charisma remains a volatile one who could end up being a real thorn in the side of the clans as well as Paris.

No one knows exactly what the future holds for Corsica. A clan to the left of Mr. Simeoni insisting on complete independence, and one to the right of Mr. Ornano insisting that any autonomy is too much have been exploding bombs all over the island for years now. The attacks continue, but there are never casualties, and election day here was calm.

Still, as the election strength of the clans and the autonomists shows, Corsica does not seem ready to enter the modern world calmly.

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