- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 6, 2000

PARIS The operetta may be an Italian invention, but the resignation last week of French Interior Minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement had a certain histrionic quality to it that would have done any dying operatic hero proud. In some way you can tell a country by its resignations. A British minister might have stiffened the old upper lip and taken the decent way out. An American official might have taken "full responsibility," and stayed on and on and on (at least in the Clinton era).
By contrast, Mr. Chevenement managed to drag out his final act for weeks and weeks as he threatened resignation, hinted that he might be gone soon and wouldn't they all miss him then; conditioned his departure on consultations with Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and in other ways provided most of the domestic news and entertainment in France's slow vacation month of August. It is the third time Mr. Chevenement has resigned a Cabinet post in a great display of personal integrity huff; in 1991 he resigned as minister of defense because of the French alliance with the United States, no less, in the Gulf War.
Adding to the drama of it all was the subject of the interior minister's indignation the island of Corsica and the fate of the French Republic itself. Can La France survive the introduction of limited autonomy for Corsica, such as the government of Mr. Jospin is considering? In a country that wrote the book on the power of the centralized state, where kings used to be considered gods and government bureaucrats today carry on in that fine tradition, this is a particularly interesting question. That the socialist prime minister has even opened the door to decentralization may be due to a European tendency to make accommodation with terrorists, but it is probably also due to tendencies within the European Union towards greater regional autonomy within the overarching EU structure. How far and within what limits the European nation-state can be diluted will be a crucial issue for Europe in the years to come. In a sense, it is also what is at stake in the French governmental squabble.
But back to Corsica. The Mediterranean island has been the source of no end of trouble for centuries, as it has fought against both French and Italian dominance. It will also be recalled that Napoleon Bonaparte hailed from Corsica. Though Napoleon still has his fervent admirers among some Frenchmen who extol his record as a progressive reformer, the short general did manage to wreak a good deal of havoc on the European continent, having had but a faulty sense of the distinction between "yours" and "mine."
Separatist movements of a particularly violent sort have raged on Corsica for the past quarter of a century. This was when the Corsican National Liberation front first earned its stripes as one of the nastiest European terrorist organizations, on par with the German Red Army faction and the Irish Republican Army, with which it has a good deal in common. Its campaign of terror in the 1970s caused bloodshed all over Paris as bombs targeted government buildings and assassins prowled the streets. And it worked. A truce in 1981 led to special status for Corsica in 1982. This bought the French some time.
In the past few years, the terrorist have been back with a vengeance. In 1998, they murdered France's most senior official in Corsica, Claude Erignac. Despite the fact that very few people on Corsica in fact want independence, the separatist groups have become increasingly bloody in their exertions, sometimes directing the bloodshed at each other, as in August when five men opened fire with machine guns against the head of a separatist group and his bodyguard at a coffee bar. This came even as Mr. Jospin was placing on the table an offer for Corsican greater self-government and recognition of Corsica's separate cultural status, a proposal that has been approved by Corsica's local assembly.
In all of this, Interior Minister Chevenement has voiced the opposition of many who refuse to give in to terrorism and those who believe this could be the end of French territorial integrity. (Parallels with the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland abound here.) Interestingly, there is also the problem that Corsica fell under Mr. Chevenement's portfolio, which accordingly would be rather dramatically curtailed if Corsica went its own administrative way.
Mr. Chevenement's famous last words were, "A minister has to keep his mouth shut. If he wants to open it, he has to resign." Miraculously, he managed to do all of these things at the same time.
What we have here is the new left of Mr. Jospin fighting the old left of Mr. Chevenement in a coalition government of socialists, communists and Greens. Though the spectacle in and of itself is delightful, you have to wonder where the trend towards regional autonomy is leading the countries of Europe.
E-mail: bering@twtmail.com.

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