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France: Premier's Visit To Corsica Impresses Island's Nationalists

In an unexpected initiative, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin has promised increased autonomy to France's island region of Corsica. RFE/RL reports that Raffarin's surprise visit to the island over the past weekend was also surprisingly well received by Corsica's mainstream nationalists.

Paris, 30 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin's surprise visit to Corsica on 27 July is being praised as a step forward by the island's mainstream nationalists.

Raffarin spent only four hours in Corsica, joining his interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, who was on a three-day visit. But he made full use of his time. Both in private talks and in a public address to the island's regional assembly, Raffarin told the nationalists what they wanted to hear: "I am aware of your expectations for 'particularity' [greater autonomy]. An amendment to the [Fifth Republic's] Constitution [we are preparing] will allow for that particularity."

Initial reactions from leaders of the island's main nationalist party, Corsica Nazione, were wary. Immediately after Raffarin's speech, Paul Quastana, one the party's two top leaders, told reporters: "We'll have to wait and see how all this develops, how the constitutional amendment is phrased and how it will be organized. Afterwards, we'll make up our minds."

But a half-hour later, after a meeting with Raffarin, spokesman Jean-Guy Talamoni and other party leaders were putting the accent on the positive. A smiling Talamoni and Quastana shook hands with Raffarin in front of photographers and television cameras. Talamoni told journalists that he viewed Raffarin's initiative "favorably" -- although he noted it was only "the beginning of a dialogue" with the French government which, he said, would be judged by its acts, not its words.

This weekend (3-4 August), Corsica Nazione is due to hold its annual congress. Party activists will then have to formulate their group's official response to Raffarin's promise of greater particularity for the island.

Particularity ("specificite" in French), in fact, is a code word among Corsican nationalists for "differentness." The island's nationalists have long sought more autonomy than is granted to France's other 21 regions, sometimes through dialogue with Paris but on many occasions through violence.

The last instance of dialogue began in late 1999 when the previous left government led by Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin invited elected Corsican officials, including mainstream nationalists, to submit proposals for the island's future status within the French Republic. The first stage of that dialogue ended early this year (January) with passage of a law allowing Corsica the right to initiate its own reforms and increasing the authority of the island's 51-member assembly.

But within weeks, France's Constitutional Council -- its highest judicial authority -- ruled that the law was unconstitutional. The court said the island could not initiate any reforms of its own before 2004.

Raffarin's new promise to meet Corsican demands for particularity gets around the Constitutional Council's finding by putting any future changes to the island's status within the framework of an overall plan for greater decentralization of all of France's regions. That plan, in the form of a constitutional amendment, will be submitted to the approval of the French people in a referendum, probably early next year. Approval means automatic adoption of the amendment.

Both Raffarin and Interior Minister Sarkozy insisted publicly during the weekend that Corsica would be the "precursor" or "pioneer" of their regional decentralization program. But nationalist spokesman Talamoni warned that it remained "out of the question" for Corsica to be part of an overall French decentralization process.

Corsica Nazione's ultimate aim, often publicly declared, has always been full independence for the island. Opinion polls show, however, that this goal is not shared by three-quarters of the island's indigenous population of about a quarter of a million.

Corsica Nazione and a similarly minded group named Independenza also seek official recognition of the Corsican people, obligatory teaching of the Corsican language -- which is derived largely from Italian -- autonomous legislative power, and the freeing of what they call "political prisoners."

The latest instance of Corsican extremists' propensity for violence came only a week before Sarkozy's arrival on 26 July. On 18 July, extremists who have yet to be identified blew up barracks being constructed to house special riot police near Bastia, the island's second-largest (after the capital Ajaccio) city. The group "Without a Name" claimed responsibility for the act, which took place in daytime, and demanded "immediate strong actions" from Paris, including the granting of legislative power to the island "as a precondition to a real negotiated political solution."

Corsica's history, both recent and ancient, has been marked repeatedly by violence. Sometimes the violence has been undertaken by one of the island's clans against another in revenge killings that bespeak the still primitive nature of much of the island's social structure. Often the violence has been directed at the ruling power -- Genoa until the late 18th century, when Corsica was sold to France.

Today, France spends far more state money in Corsica -- which cannot sustain itself alone -- than in regions far more populous. Apart from the island's nationalists, few believe Corsica could survive economically if it ever attained independence. Nevertheless, the nationalists play a powerful role on the Corsican political scene, and the island's code of "silence" (omerta) serves to protect some of its most violent extremists.

Thus, the man though to have assassinated French Prefect Claude Erignac four years ago, in an unprecedented act, is still at large. Most of those who helped in the murder have since been arrested, but the assassin himself is known to have taken to Corsica's rugged interior, where he is protected both by impenetrable mountains and the island's code of silence.

Sarkozy spoke of Corsica's propensity for violence in his speech to the island's regional assembly: "Violence is sterile, absurd, counterproductive for Corsica and for Corsicans."

Most of the assembly members probably agreed. But many of them -- and many other Corsicans -- know that the end of violence will not come anytime soon in a territory whose history for a millennium has been marked by forced subjugation, pillage, and murder.