By Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian
If Corsican nationalists have their way, the large French-ruled Mediterranean island of 330,000 inhabitants would become Europe’s next big secessionist tug of war, alongside Catalonia and Scotland.
On Dec. 10 the governing Pè a Corsica (For Corsica) coalition won a convincing 56.5 per cent of the votes in elections for the island’s territorial assembly. French President Emmanuel Macron’s party, La République En Marche (Forward), got just 12.7 per cent of the vote.
The nationalists’ victory was the result of an agreement reached two years ago between the autonomist Femu a Corsica (Party of the Corsican Nation), led by Gilles Simeoni, and those seeking full independence, the Corsica Libera (Free Corsica) of Jean-Guy Talamoni.
The nationalists will have 41 seats, a clear majority in the island's 63-seat parliament.
With its strong indigenous culture and language, closer to the Italians who ruled it for centuries than to the French, Corsica, the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte, has always had an ambivalent relationship to the mainland.
The nationalist alliance wants an amnesty for Corsicans jailed for pro-independence violence, equal status with French for the Corsican language on the island, and a “Corsican resident” status to dissuade foreign and French investors from buying up local properties.
Other demands include more fiscal autonomy, control over the island’s education system, and a greater say in developing the impoverished interior of the huge island.
This was the second victory in a row for the nationalists, who first came to power in 2015, and who now seem to have consolidated their hold.
Simeoni, the chairman of the Corsican executive council, told the French government that he expected “a true dialogue, so that the Corsica question is settled politically in a peaceful and long-lasting manner.”
Macron now faces the dilemma of whether to loosen France’s grip on the Mediterranean island or to maintain centralised control.
The Elysée released a statement shortly after the victory, saying the manifesto put forward by Simeoni and Talamoni seemed “ambitious.”
France has always prided itself of being a centralized state, and Paris has cultivated a policy of silence when faced with the island’s demands.
“It’s not indifference, it’s hostility,” contended Simeoni. “There’s no room for demands like ours in the French framework.” He called the French state “silent and paralyzed.”
But there has been some state restructuring in France, where limited forms of devolution have created new tiers of governance.
One of France’s 18 regions, Corsica is known as a territorial collectivity, and as such enjoys a greater degree of autonomy than the French administrative divisions known as departments; its assembly can exercise limited executive powers.
Simeoni is the former lawyer for Yvan Colonna, who was convicted of the 1998 murder in Ajaccio of a government-appointed prefect, Claude Erignac.
The killing was considered the gravest act of violence in the four-decade conflict led by the Fronte di Liberazione Nazinale Corsu (National Liberation Front of Corsica).
Some 30 militants remain in French prisons but the extremists renounced violence in 2014.
Talamoni, the president of the Corsican assembly, believes independence is the island’s destiny. "We’ve forgotten nothing about taking our country out of the night into which France has plunged us!” Talamoni told a crowd prior to the vote.
“There’s been a ‘massification’ of nationalism, it’s a nationalism that is now inclusive,” according to Thierry Dominici, a Corsica expert at the University of Bordeaux. This, he asserted, has marginalized the traditional political parties.
The crowds at the nationalist rallies were relatively young, which has allowed their leaders to argue that they represent a wave Paris will have to reckon with.