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Will the Center Hold?

4 minute read

At first glance, last week’s 287-217 parliamentary vote granting the island of Corsica increased autonomy may look like another exercise in partisan politics. France’s leftist majority dutifully supported the government of Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, while the conservative opposition just as predictably snubbed it. In reality, however, the bill is causing division even within political parties and may set off significant changes in France’s highly centralized governing structure.

Though the draft law is designed to end the nationalist violence and organized crime that have plagued the island for over two decades, one consequence — limited decentralization — goes against some of the most sacred tenets of French political ideology: concentration of power in Paris and insistence on the uniformity of French identity. The proposal would give Corsica’s local assembly greater autonomy by allowing it to adapt certain national laws to the “specificities of the island.” It would also permit the assembly more flexibility in managing Corsica’s economy and grant its 250,000 residents tax exemptions to favor investment and growth. The bill also encourages instruction in the Corsican language in public schools — a recognition of linguistic and cultural distinction no other French region enjoys.

The bill’s backers hope that giving nationalists a greater stake in the system will induce them to end their struggle against “French colonialism.” Opponents counter it rewards the thuggery, violence and widespread corruption that nationalists and criminals used to make Corsica an unmanageable headache for French governments since 1975. Conservative detractors like Nicole Ameline, spokeswoman for the centrist Liberal Democracy Party, argued the bill legitimizes “violence as a means of gaining political recognition.” Other rightists condemned it as “preparing independence.” The loudest protests came from Jospin’s own leftist majority. Former Interior Minister Jean-Pierre Chevènement — who resigned last year in protest against Jospin’s plans — decried the bill, asking, “Who is so naive to believe that whatever is granted to Corsicans today won’t also be demanded tomorrow by the Basques, Bretons, Savoyards?” Similar misgivings were privately voiced by other leftists, but the shorter-term priorities of sparing the Jospin government a defeat ensured the bill’s passage.

Disunity over the measure was not limited to the left, however. Several leading conservatives — including former Gaullist Premier Edouard Balladur and former President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing — broke ranks to vote for the bill, while 30 others aided it by abstaining. That conservative support reflected beliefs that French political and economic modernization lies in extending previous transfers of decision-making power to regional authorities. Earlier French devolution programs were productive. But in tailoring decentralization to regional particularities, the Corsica bill challenges constitutional tenets of national indivisibility and equality.

Still, given the beneficial effects of decentralization, Jospin and other candidates preparing to challenge President Jacques Chirac in next spring’s elections now champion acceleration. François Bayrou, president of the centrist Union of French Democracy Party, argues that the Corsican bill will further foster devolution. “Decisions must be taken locally, close to citizens,” says Bayrou, “and not just in their name from Paris.”

The Corsican bill still has a long way to go to become law. The draft must pass the upper house of Parliament before facing the Conseil Constitutionnel — the guardian of France’s Jacobin constitution. Corsican nationalists may also prove uncooperative if, as leader Jean-Guy Talamoni warns, the bill “isn’t a modest start to what must be a much deeper, wider reform.”

Anything short of a clean start for Corsica could prove disastrous. It would be a travesty of the bill’s intent if nationalists ended up sharing power on the island while still supporting more radical underground groups accused of perpetrating violence and crime. That would likely provoke a get-tough reversal of Corsican policy by Paris — and derail projects to speed devolution to other regions.

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