Alsace at the Forefront

STRASBOURG | | frankreich

STRASBOURG (Own report) - German-speaking autonomists in Eastern France have applauded a decision by French authorities to establish an "Alsatian Regional Council," but are demanding rights of autonomy for the region of Alsace, similar to those for South Tyrol. Strasbourg's recent decision to consolidate important responsibilities for the various regional municipalities in a new "Conseil d'Alsace" (Alsace Council), concords with their objectives, declared supporters of the autonomy movement. The "Alsace Council" provides, for the first time, an effective political representation for the whole of Alsace, including segments of its German-speaking population, thereby fulfilling prerequisites for strengthening an "Alsatian identity." Other steps are due to follow, for example the valorization of the German language. The ultimate goal is autonomy, similar to that in the northern Italian South Tyrol province. In South Tyrol, demands for secession from Italy have been growing in intensity. Specialists of German policy toward "ethnic minorities" assume that decisions in Alsace will give impetus to other French regionalists - for example, Basque separatists.

The "Conseil d'Alsace"

In late November, parliamentarians of the two Rhine-region French departments (67, Bas-Rhin, and 68, Haut-Rhin) passed a resolution establishing a new "Conseil d'Alsace" (Alsace Council). The gist of this complicated administrative procedure consists of combining the two departments' respective "Conseils Generaux" (General Councils) with the "Conseil Regional d'Alsace" (the Regional Council of Alsace),[1] to create a supervisory administrative body, to consolidate the previously scattered responsibilities, thereby, closer conflating the two departments. The new administrative unit is officially known as the "Collectivité territoriale d'Alsace," but it is often simply referred to as the "Conseil d'Alsace" (Alsace Council). Its parliamentary assembly will be situated in Strasbourg, while the related "Executive Council" (similar to a regional government) is to be seated in Colmar. According to plans, individual "specialized administrations" will be headquartered in Mulhouse. This project, scheduled to be implemented by 2015, must now be adopted by the region's inhabitants in a referendum, planned for April 7, 2013.[2] It is expected to pass with a large majority. In parliament, the vote on the project had resulted in a majority of 108 in favor, to five against and nine abstentions.

Defy Paris

Officially, this measure is justified with the argument that government expenditures must be quickly reduced - particularly in light of the Euro Crisis. A consolidation of administrations could contribute substantially, according to estimates, reducing up to one-fifth of the current expenditures. The population is also supposed to benefit. For example, there will be only "a single operating company" for local commuter services, which will issue one ticket for all means of commuter transportation for the entire region - whether "bus, train, or streetcar."[3] Autonomists, seeking more far-reaching goals, are giving very different reasons for being enthusiastic about the plans. For example, the restructuring of the regional administration is conducive to guaranteeing "better visibility to Alsatian political life." "A form of political autonomy" will be granted us that "the French Republic has always denied." Such a "relative autonomy" will permit the Alsatians "to finally defy Paris," particularly "in financial matters" and "bi-lingual questions."[4]

German as Economic Trump Card

Since the beginning, the valorization of German to be the official language of Alsace has been among the catalogue of demands made by German-speaking autonomists even though they, themselves, admit that only about one-tenth of all children in Alsace speak the local German dialect as their mother language. Alsace "has been German-speaking for more than 15 centuries," claims, for example, the autonomist party "Unser Land." "Our language is a precious heritage, a central element of our culture and a superb trump card for the future."[5] The latter allegation has surprisingly received confirmation in the economic sector. "Germany's economic attraction" has become "more important than the cultural disengagement from France," remarked the somewhat right-wing extremist weekly, "Junge Freiheit," which, as a rule, carefully registers movements for the reinforcement of "Germandom" outside the Federal Republic of Germany. "Seventy percent of the job offers in Alsatian dailies, carry the indication that the employer expects knowledge of German," writes the "Junge Freiheit" and makes reference to Philippe Richert, President of the Regional Council of Alsace, who explained that "knowledge of German is a crucial economic trump card."[6] This is why the Alsatian authorities are making a campaign for learning German and investing a growing amount in their German "promotion campaign." In fact, the Euro crisis, which has caused much stronger upheavals in France than in Germany, has distinctly heightened the economic attractivity of Germany.

"The Path to Liberation"

Using Germany's economic attractiveness as a pretext, autonomists demand broader autonomy for Alsace. Bernard Wittman, a well known autonomy advocate, claims in the recent publication ("Plea for an autonomy statute") that, in the case of France, the current crisis is due to well-known shortcomings of the country's political system. He sees one of the main causes being the fact that France persists as a centralized state and Europe's "black sheep," when it comes to granting special rights to ethnic minorities. The French crisis is, therefore, also dragging the once prosperous Alsace into the abyss. It is "unacceptable" that "Alsatians" should "pay the price" of all the errors committed by the French political class. Already since the 1990s, the situation in Alsace has been deteriorating. Therefore, the time has come for the region to rely "on its own capabilities" to "find its path to liberation." An autonomy statute that would grant Alsace comprehensive political responsibilities has become imperative. For autonomist observers, the current administrative transformation and the establishment of the "Conseil d'Alsace" is clearly a step in this direction.[7]

South Tyrol Model

South Tyrol is, with growing frequency referred to as a model. Autonomy advocate Wittman, a friend of South Tyrolan regional chairman Luis Durnwalder, has published a book entitled "From 1919 to the present day - South Tyrol - Alsace/Elsass" ("De 1919 à nos jours. Südtirol - Alsace/Elsass"), in which he describes this role model. In fact, Alsatian delegations have been travelling to the North Italian province Bolzano/Alto Adige to find out if its autonomy could serve as a model for eastern France. According to autonomist circles, South Tyrol could "certainly serve as an example for the Alsace." Because of this parallel, advocates of a unified French nation warn against autonomy or steps in that direction, such as the "Conseil d'Alsace." Forces, demanding South Tyrol's secession from Italy and its possible affiliation with Austria, have recently grown stronger. (german-foreign-policy.com reported.[8])

A Question of Democracy

With the imminent establishment of the "Conseil d'Alsace," the "Alsace is at the forefront" of French centrifugal forces - "contrary to previous hypotheses," according to Christoph Pan, one of the most prominent representatives of German model of ethnic-European minority policy. This should be "important" because it would be difficult for Paris "to deny others what it most likely can no longer deny the Alsatians." In fact, "the Normans are demanding the establishment of a single region Normandy," explains Pan, "the Bretons have not ceased demanding the reunification of their linguistic region with their historic capital Nantes, the Savoyards would like to have the Savoy region," and "the Basques north of the Pyrenees have been demanding their own Basque department for a long time," and "the Corsicans (...) are continuing to seek an autonomous self-government." The "ethnic group"-specialist threatens that "France will not be able to oppose the demands of large sectors of the population, if it wants to continue to call itself a democracy."[9] French democracy is not founded on special ethnic rights, but on the equality of all its citizens - regardless of origin, mother language or ethnic classification.

[1] The area "Région Alsace" is made up of the two departments Bas-Rhin and Haut-Rhin. The "Région Alsace" however has currently much less authority than the future Collectivité territoriale d'Alsace."
[2], [3] Weg frei für den Elsassrat; www.bo.de 28.11.2012
[4] Ja zum elsässischen Landrat; blog.unsri-heimet.eu 27.11.2012
[5] Langue. Unsri Sproch, unser Recht! www.unserland.org
[6] Deutsch im Elsaß und in der Tschechei; www.jungefreiheit.de 02.10.2010
[7] "L'Alsace demain: plaidoyer pour un statut d'autonomie"; www.unserland.org
[8] see also Der Zentralstaat als Minusgeschäft, Crisis Profiteers and Wie es der Zufall will
[9] Christoph Pan: Wittmann, Bernard: L'Alsace demain, European Journal for Minority Issues No. 4/2011