Is it possible that Napoleon Bonaparte's birthplace might one day be seen as the undoing of French sovereignty?
The Mediterranean island of Corsica, off the southern coast of France, is one of the largest unspoiled areas in Western Europe. Its virgin beaches and rugged mountains attract some 2 million tourists annually. Throughout history, because of its strategic location, almost everyone - from the ancient Greeks and Romans, to the Phoenicians and the French - have tried to conquer it.
In a risky move to end nearly a quarter century of nationalist violence, French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin announced an agreement that is already ricocheting through Europe's other independence-minded enclaves - further weakening European nation-states.
The deal he struck with Corsican politicians on Friday would take the island toward eventual self-governance.
Critics already fear that the plan is a dangerous catalyst threatening the unity of the French nation, and say that it encourages other domestic regions with separatist inclinations to employ the same violent tactics."With regards to Corsica, I fear a contagious effect that I call 'I Love You,' " Interior Minister Jean-Pierre Chevnement told the newspaper Le Monde, referring to the computer bug. "To concede legislative power is to concede sovereignty."
Soon after Mr. Chevnement's statement, other regional separatist groups vocalized their aims. "What is possible in Corsica is certainly possible in the Basque country," said a statement issued by Abertzaleen Batasuna, the most important separatist movement in the Basque region of southwest France. Local politicians seeking greater autonomy for other regions, such as Brittany and Alsace, issued statements demanding a transfer of power from Paris to the regional governments.
The first phase of the Jospin plan calls for the transfer of substantial regulatory powers in economic development, education, transportation, and protection of the environment, among others, to the Corsican Regional Assembly. In addition, the Corsican language will be taught during regular school hours rather than as an after-school activity, a key symbolic demand of the nationalists. During this transition period, scheduled to end in 2002, the French parliament would be able to reject any modifications to the national laws made by the Corsican Assembly.
A second phase, to be carried out between 2003 and 2004, would reform the French Constitution to allow the Corsican Assembly to pass its own laws, without giving the national legislature the possibility of rejecting the changes. While some regions of Italy and especially Spain have similar powers, such a situation has been unthinkable until now in highly centralized France.
But during the past several years, successive Conservative and Socialist governments have tried to bring peace to Corsica - using repression, to be sure. But they've also provided massive subsidies ($1.8 billion per year) designed to spur its depressed economy, increased power to local authorities, even passed a law recognizing the "particularity" of the Corsican people that was later overturned as unconstitutional.
All this was to no avail, with each concession leading to additional demands on the part of the nationalists coupled with a flare up of violence. The Corsican terrorists have set off hundreds of bombs on the island in the past 20 years, intended to cause considerable damage, but no casualties. Their most violent act came in February 1998, when Corsican terrorists assassinated Claude Erignac, who as prefect was the central government's highest representative on the island.
Some 100 terrorist acts have been carried out by Corsican nationalists since the start of this year, according to the Interior Ministry.
After reaching the agreement, Mr. Jospin said: "My objective and that of the government is that Corsica escape from the routine and the fatality of violence."
For the first time, Corsican politicians from all shades of the political spectrum agreed to a common program, although there were signs over the weekend that not everyone was interpreting the agreement in the same way.
The Corsican legislature is expected to overwhelmingly approve the plan on July 28. While nationalist leaders refused to make any promises, there was hope that the accord would bring peace to the island.
"It's very positive," said Jean-Franois Luciani, the spokesman for Corsica Viva, one of several groups seeking independence for the island. "I am personally surprised at Jospin's political courage. My intuition tells me that it is time more for work than for bombs."
But while Corsican politicians and the national government in Paris congratulated themselves on the accord, the 260,000 residents of the island reacted with caution.
"The Corsican people are used to palace revolutions that in reality don't change anything," Nicolas Guidici, an author and journalist, said in a telephone interview from his home near Bastia in northern Corsica. "The population is very skeptical.... I am afraid the people don't believe that peace can come anymore."
Jospin made it clear that a revision of the Constitution would be carried out only if there is an end to the violence, if the president and prime minister in office four years from now agree, and if the Corsican government proves that it can handle its new powers in a responsible manner.
Political observers say the first phase will serve as an experiment for eventually giving France's 22 regional legislatures similar powers in much the same way that the reforms carried out in Corsica in 1982 led to the creation of France's 22 regions.
But others, led by Mr. Chevnement, say the reforms will lead to the end of the French state as it now exists and say Corsica is about the worst place imaginable to carry out such an experiment.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society