PARIS — “France,” according to one of its best-known poets and political thinkers, Paul Valery, “is the most heterogeneous country that ever existed.” The present tragedy in Kosovo makes this sound hyperbolic, yet there is an element of truth in it. The French who live on the shores of the Mediterranean, for instance, are closer in many ways to the shore dwellers of other Mediterranean countries than they are to the inhabitants of Brittany, Burgundy or Alsace — who themselves present many physical and cultural contrasts. No wonder these varied peoples resisted so strenuously the Capetian kings’ centuries-long attempts to bring them under their crown through wars, purchases and weddings. When the French Revolution took place, the moderate Girondist party called for a more decentralized state that would take account of the peculiarities of France’s various regions. But the Girondists were defeated by the Jacobins, who overthrew the monarchy only to follow in turn its firmly unitarian tradition. A great admirer of the Roman Empire, Napoleon Bonaparte built in the imperial spirit many institutions that have in many respects survived him.

In several parts of France, regionalist and even separatist movements have appeared in the two centuries since, mostly animated by the desire to preserve their own customs and languages. But the great majority of the population, from Gaullists to communists, want unequivocally to remain French and support the idea of a strong state — from which, indeed, everyone routinely expects some degree of help. It was only in 1981, when Francois Mitterrand was first elected president, that the 22 regions of present-day France, each with its own elected executives, were created. With one exception, these regions have caused the central government no major problems.

That exception is Corsica, “the isle of beauty,”where the situation is presently so fraught that it often pushes the Kosovo war out of the headlines in France. After the murder in February last year of the regional prefect (the main local representative of the Republic), his successor was dismissed for participating in the April 20 burning down of an illegally built beach restaurant by a special unit of military police. The man is now in jail.

The opposition was busy capitalizing on this new “affair” by introducing a censure motion against the Cabinet when the news suddenly broke that most of the murdered prefect’s killers had been arrested, thanks to surveillance of their mobile-phone calls by central government police. Prime Minister Lionel Jospin was thus handed a major political success just when he seemed about to suffer his first major setback since his appointment two years ago. Yet the evidence remains of a suicidal war between Corsica’s military and civilian police and of the failure of numerous government promises over two or three decades to restore law and order on the island.

With an area of just 8,682 sq. km and boasting fewer than 300,000 inhabitants, Corsica is by far the smallest French region. It is also easily the poorest. It was bought in 1768 for essentially strategic purposes from the Republic of Genoa, at the time one of the numerous small Italian states overwhelmed by financial problems. If this bargain had not been struck, Napoleon, who was born on the island a year later, would not even have been French: One can only imagine how differently the subsequent course of modern European history might have played out in that event. The glory of Napoleon’s achievements did much to rally the majority of Corsicans to the idea of being French, even though their culture is fundamentally Italian. Many of them managed to land top jobs in the French Army and civil service and other institutions covering the whole range of French public life. The present editor of Le Monde, for instance, is a Corsican.

A mountainous land, mostly covered by its famous “maquis”, or shrubs (where it’s extremely easy to hide), Corsica resembles most Mediterranean islands in having a tradition of clan feuds and “honor banditry.” It changed very little until World War II, when it was occupied by Italian and later German troops before its liberation by a French Army strongly aided by the local resistance. Since then, it has experienced two other invasions, which together have deeply unsettled its way of life. One was the arrival of tens of thousands of French settlers expelled from Algeria when that country won its independence in 1962. Most were farmers, using modern agricultural methods that contrasted sharply with old-fashioned local habits. The challenge this presented aroused considerable resentment on Corsica. The second invasion consisted of the floods of tourists who now visit the island annually, disturbing its peace and its festivals alike.

Many Corsicans, of course, appreciate the money these two invasions have brought them. But others see them as a kind of double rape of Corsican identity, legitimizing a widespread refusal by islanders to comply with the laws of the state that has allowed it. They are, in any case, too proud to obey anybody, including the heads of the various local nationalist movements, who seem unable to patch up their long-standing differences. There are a dozen of these at present, mostly legal, but often, as in Northern Ireland or Spain’s Basque country, boasting an underground armed branch. Some are more or less linked with organized-crime groups. Even Corsicans who oppose the very idea of secession would feel it contrary to their honor to denounce the terrorists. The same attitude can be found on the Italian islands, in Greece or in Lebanon: That’s the Mediterranean way.

What it means in practice is that finding a solution to the Corsican problem is not going to be easy. No wonder polls show that a majority of mainland French would willingly grant the island a much more significant degree of self-rule than it has had for the past 20 years. Yet despite the success of the nationalists in the last regional election several weeks ago, most of the islanders still oppose severing links with Paris.

At the same time, the present situation cannot continue indefinitely. For years now, successive French governments have hesitated between increased repression and secret negotiations with the Corsican terrorists. It remains to hope that the emotions generated by Prefect Claude Erignac’s murder and his successor’s arrest will finally open the door to the initiation of a real peace process.

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