August 30, 2000

New York Times

French Cabinet Split Over Corsican Autonomy

Agence France-Presse

Jean-Pierre Chevènement quit as interior minister in protest.

BONIFACIO, Corsica, Aug. 29 -- In perhaps the most daring initiative of his three years in office, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin of France has won widespread backing in Corsica for a plan to end decades of separatist violence in this Mediterranean island. But his proposal for limited autonomy for Corsicans has caused a crisis in his government.

Today, Jean-Pierre Chevènement, long a pivotal figure in Mr. Jospin's Socialist-led coalition, stepped down as interior minister. He has argued for several weeks that the Corsica plan threatens "the unity of France" and could bring dangerous demands for special treatment from other French with strong regional identity.

Mr. Jospin's strategy, praised by some as the best chance of peace in a generation, is now also drawing fire from other sides, including nationalists in the Gaullist Party and the extreme rightist National Front, which says Paris is giving away too much. Radical Corsicans want more concessions.

The mood here in Corsica is one of nervous anticipation. A religious precession winding through the narrow town of Bonifacio today was officially dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, but the prayers were for peace. While polls indicate that a large majority of Corsicans welcome Mr. Jospin's plan, many people fear more violence. Since the plan was approved by the Corsican Assembly in late July, extremists here have assassinated a moderate Corsican politician and set off a new wave of bombs.

In Paris, the political storm over Corsica has put a sudden end to the normally sleepy August vacation period. It has also highlighted how Corsica continues to be an intractable problem for French governments. To Corsican extremists, anything short of full independence is a sellout; to French nationalists, any concession to Corsica would set the stage for unraveling the French nation state.

For Mr. Jospin, it was clearly embarrassing to find an important cabinet member opposing his plan, which would give Corsica limited rights to pass its own laws beginning in 2004. It would have been Mr. Chevènement's task as interior minister to present and defend the plan in the National Assembly later this year, something he was not willing to do as a staunch defender of France's highly centralized political system.

Following his resignation today, he said that the Jospin plan "is a threat to the very definition of France."

"Next we might imagine seeing a Basque or a Breton Parliament," he added. "The law must be the same for all."

Mr. Jospin reportedly tried in vain to keep his ally by his side by offering him other cabinet posts. The two men have been friends for more than 30 years.

The outspoken Mr. Chevènement, 61, has had famous clashes with his colleagues before: he resigned in protest as minister of industry under President François Mitterrand in 1983 and walked out as defense minister in 1991 because he opposed France's participation in the Persian Gulf war and sided with Iraq.

Daniel Vaillant, another close associate of Mr. Jospin and the current minister for relations with Parliament, was named the new interior minister.

Corsicans seemed somewhat befuddled by the high-level squabble over their fate. The newspaper Corse Matin announced the cabinet shake-up with large headlines and cartoons, while some locals expressed concern over the change. "All we want is peace and we thought we were getting there, but who knows now," said Anna Alberti, leaving church this afternoon.

Elsewhere in France, people have been growing impatient with the waves of violence and the failed attempts to bring peace to this island, where separatist demands are pressed by only a tiny minority. While the Corsica issue attracts little interest in the outside world, this rocky island of no more than 250,000 people frequently forces itself onto the Paris agenda.

In a sense, in recent decades Corsica has been to France what the Basque region has been to Spain and Northern Ireland has been to Britain. But while Britain has relatively little emotional attachment to Northern Ireland and Spain has already granted considerable Basque autonomy, Corsica strikes a more complex historical chord in France.

Although the island only became part of France in 1768, it was Corsica's most famous son, Napoleon , who did most to smother regional identities and centralize power in Paris. The notion of France as a nation, although its inhabitants are not ethnically homogeneous, stems from the concept born in that era that they all subscribe to the same principles of French nationhood.

In the first half of the 20th century, with France receiving waves of Christian European immigrants, the country's educational system turned them into Frenchmen within a generation.

Over the past 30 years, though, with the influx of Arab immigrants, cultural and religious differences, and the sheer numbers, have made integration more difficult.

Already alarmed by the emergence of this new multiethnic French identity, many French nationalists fear that the Corsica plan would formalize the idea of different kinds of French citizens.

A decade ago, during a previous attempt to settle the island's troubles, the French Senate rejected a constitutional amendment that would have referred to the Corsican "people." Now, those who criticize Mr. Jospin's plan fear that it would be another way of recognizing a separate "people."

Some opposition stems from the belief -- both on the mainland and on Corsica -- that many of the separatists have links to organized crime and are themselves engaged in criminal activity.