Corsican autonomy divides French leadership

A Cabinet minister appears set to resign over deal many see as a dangerous precedent.

Corsica's embryonic peace deal, after a quarter of a century of separatist violence that has killed hundreds of people, seems on the verge of claiming its own first victim.

Far from the Mediterranean island itself, French Interior Minister Jean-Pierre Chevnement - a fierce critic of concessions that the government made in the peace accord - is finding his place in the Cabinet increasingly uncomfortable.

He survived the first post-holiday Cabinet meeting yesterday, but said he would be meeting Prime Minister Lionel Jospin "very soon" to discuss his future. He has already said he will not defend the peace agreement in parliament this autumn, when legislators debate the government plan.

Since the Corsican assembly voted overwhelmingly a month ago to accept the increased autonomy that Paris is offering, two bombings, one rocket attack, and two assassinations in Corsica have put pressure on the tenuous peace accord.

But the island's main armed separatist groups, which united for the first time earlier this month, say they are sticking to their eight-month cease-fire, and that they still support the agreement that Corsican nationalists reached with the French government last month.

"We have supported the beginning of the process by announcing a cease-fire, which we have scrupulously respected and which we renew today," leaders of the Combatants' Union said in an interview published this week in the Paris daily Le Monde.

The recent bombings, they said, were the work of a "tiny group" trying to upset the agreement.

But the violence, Mr. Chevnement complained, has only fed his fears that "so long as the clandestine groups ... and the [Corsican] legislators in their hands do not explicitly renounce violence, anything can happen."

The small Mediterranean island has long had a reputation for the fierce independence of its people, whose language owes more to Italian than to French. Annexed to France in 1763, Corsica was the birthplace of France's greatest national hero, Napoleon Bonaparte, who, ironically, embodied the revolutionary ideal of a strong central government.

As French politicians return from their summer break and turn their attention to the Corsican problem, Chevnement, who leads a small left-wing party within the ruling coalition, is finding supporters even within Mr. Jospin's Socialist Party.

"The risk is that this process will end by putting the rifle and the ballot slip on the same level," warned Henri Emmanuelli, a top Socialist leader, in an interview published Thursday in the daily Libration.

The peace accord, which the French parliament must ratify before it comes into force, would allow the Corsican assembly to "adapt" some French legislation to local conditions.

Such changes would be subject to approval by the national parliament until 2004; thereafter, Corsica would have the final word.

The deal would also allow schools to teach the Corsican language as part of the official curriculum, rather than an after-hours activity, and it cedes some responsibility for regional economic development, taxation, tourism, education, transport, the environment, and sports to the Corsican assembly.

Chevnement has focused his criticism on the way the Corsican assembly would eventually be allowed to modify some national legislation even against the French parliament's will. This partial devolution of legislative authority, he worries, would undermine national sovereignty.

In traditionally centralized France, such fears are widely shared. Jospin, in an article written specially for the weekly Le Nouvel Observateur to address his critics this week, went out of his way to insist that "it is not possible ... to equate the singular situation of Corsica with other French regions such as Brittany, Alsace, or the Basque country."

Politicians in all three regions have voiced demands for greater autonomy from Parisian rule, and have taken heart from what they see as the Corsican precedent.

Though the prime minister does not want to encourage their hopes, he has clearly broken out of the traditional mold of government thinking about how the country should be ruled, crystallized in Gen. Charles de Gaulle's words as "a strong state and a people rallied in unity."

In his article, Jospin suggested - albeit timidly - that "one might think that in the light of several years' convincing experience it will be generally acknowledged that unity is not necessarily uniformity, that Corsica's insularity and specificity could justify exploring new ways of marrying unity and diversity."

This approach is heresy to Chevnement, who heads the tiny Citizens' Movement, which he founded on breaking away from the Socialist Party. It embodies a secular, centralizing, republican tradition in French politics that dates back to the 1789 revolution.

CHEVNEMENT himself has a reputation for sticking to his principles. In 1983, he resigned his post as industry minister in Franois Mitterrand's Cabinet over policy differences, saying famously that "a minister shuts his trap or he resigns."

In 1991, he stepped down as defense minister, disagreeing with the way France lined up behind the United States in the Gulf War.

After yesterday's Cabinet meeting a number of his colleagues - including rivals - praised Chevnement, and Jospin would clearly be sad to lose a heavyweight minister who has also been a friend for 30 years. It is rumored that a new Cabinet post might be found for the prickly minister in an autumn reshuffle.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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