Corsicans listen for three words

French PM to visit an island divided by nationalism, reports Mary Dejevsky

Ajaccio - "The difficulty is that there are two Corsicas. One, open and normal; the other, hidden and lawless." This is the verdict of Paul Silvani, native Corsican and author of a dozen books on the island, as his gaze sweeps over the magnificent bay and palm-lined waterfront at Ajaccio. His argument, like that of many Corsicans, is that Paris has never known how to deal with the dual personality, exaggerates the problem of violent nationalism, and over the past 20 years of "troubles" has succeeded only in making matters worse.

In the next week, the island expects to receive its latest VIP from the mainland - none other than the Prime Minister, Alain Juppe. The opposition in Paris says the visit is a belated attempt by the Gaullists to redress their neglect of Corsica since they returned to power. Government supporters retort that such a high-level visit so early in Mr Chirac's presidency shows the depth of concern.

Mr Juppe's scouts have been here for days now, checking security, refining his programme. Corsicans, however, are doing some vetting of their own, debating whether or not he will utter three emblematic and highly divisive words: "the Corsican people". This formula, used by successive French interior ministers in recent years, is seen by non-nationalists as a chink in the government's anti-terrorist armour, and by nationalists as a cheap, meaningless concession.

Certainly, there is a recognisable Corsican language (like Italian only different), a recognisable cuisine (like Tuscan only less accomplished), and distinctive music and songs. The question is whether this justifies a claim to nationhood and independence. Each time they are asked, the population overwhelmingly says it does not.

There is, however, a strand of nationalism that links people from widely differing walks of life: from urban intellectuals who do not want to see the idyllic coastline spoilt by developers to under-employed young men who are ready to use violence to break all ties with France. In between are racketeers, whose violence gains a veneer of decency by association with nationalism.

Last weekend, the descendant of the first and most moderate of the nationalist groups - the UPC - held a special convention in Aleria, the former capital. The convention had been planned well before the recent car-bomb attack in Bastia, but that gave it extra point and spawned lively debate about whether peaceful means could ever be effective.

"If it is a choice between democracy and autonomy," their leader, Max Simeoni, said to applause, "we will choose democracy every time." They want tax-raising and legislative powers devolved to the island's assembly, a lower rate of VAT than on the mainland, a Corsican identity card, the teaching of their language in schools, and recognition as a "national minority" inside France.

To many, however, the UPC epitomises all that is wrong with nationalism. Those who favour remaining with France blame the party for planting the pernicious seed of nationalism. Others say its moderation is the reason why Paris will not take demands for devolution seriously.

What is agreed is that the UPC's predecessor, formed in 1975, was the first nationalist group of recent times, and that it reflected a whole combination of factors: Europe-wide reawakening of regional consciousness, growth of environmentalism, fear of overdevelopment and being overrun by outsiders, concern that the language and culture could die out, and the return of students radicalised by the 1968 revolt on the mainland.

Within a year, this peaceful intellectual movement had developed a violent offshoot, the FLNC. In recent years, the FLNC has split several times. Each new group - there are now three - divided into a legal, political wing, and a clandestine fighting group. Non-violent nationalists say the militants number fewer than 300, out of a total Corsican population of 250,000.

The repeated splits left Paris with the dilemma of who, if anyone, to talk to. The UPC looked civilised, but never attracted electoral support. The FLNC appeared to have clout but was divided over whether to talk back - and laid Paris open to charges that it dealt with terrorists.

The result was an ambiguous policy, where successive prime ministers called, as Mr Juppe did last week, for "firmness and intransigence" against terrorists, while interior ministers spoke of "dialogue" and justice ministers told police and magistrates in Corsica to "go easy" on the militants for fear of increasing their popular support.

Opinion now seems to be growing that some firm law and order, accompanied by recognition of the Corsican language and identity, might have been preferable. Recognition as a distinct national minority group, however, presented a problem. President Francois Mitterrand's government tried it in 1982, and had it rejected by the constitutional council, which ruled it incompatible with France's existence as a unitary state. Underlying the judgement was fear of "contagion", with Basques, Bretons, Savoyards and others demanding similar status - then, perhaps, self-government.

In this context, the use by France's last four interior ministers of the formula "the Corsican people" is an unhappy compromise. Which is why, when Mr Juppe arrives next week, his every utterance will be scoured for any reference to "the Corsican people" - to show which way the political wind is blowing in Paris.

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