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If Corsica doesn’t get autonomy, it may ask for independence

Summary:
STAND in Fozzano (pictured), a hamlet of stone houses perched above the spectacular western coast of Corsica, and it is easy to see why locals think of themselves as special. Rugged mountains tower behind. Below, the Mediterranean glimmers under a setting sun. Gilles Simeoni, a visiting politician in a duffel coat, tells a crowd that villages like theirs are the repository of the island’s true, “deep culture”. He earns appreciative nods and supportive muttering as strong coffee and dark chocolates are passed round.Corsicans have taken a shine to Mr Simeoni and his fellow nationalists. They voted on December 3rd for a new territorial council that will combine the island’s north and south into a single administrative unit. In the first round, the Pè a Corsica movement which he jointly leads

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STAND in Fozzano (pictured), a hamlet of stone houses perched above the spectacular western coast of Corsica, and it is easy to see why locals think of themselves as special. Rugged mountains tower behind. Below, the Mediterranean glimmers under a setting sun. Gilles Simeoni, a visiting politician in a duffel coat, tells a crowd that villages like theirs are the repository of the island’s true, “deep culture”. He earns appreciative nods and supportive muttering as strong coffee and dark chocolates are passed round.

Corsicans have taken a shine to Mr Simeoni and his fellow nationalists. They voted on December 3rd for a new territorial council that will combine the island’s north and south into a single administrative unit. In the first round, the Pè a Corsica movement which he jointly leads won an impressive 45% of the vote. (La République En Marche, the party led by France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, came fourth with just 11%.) The run-off election on December 10th will probably confirm that nationalists will run the council, as they have for the past two years.

Corsicans seeking more autonomy have grown stronger of late. In 2014 the National Liberation Front of Corsica, a separatist militant group, gave up their 40-year war against the French state. That had involved assassinations, house bombings and, some claim, involvement with the island’s murderous mafia networks. In 1998 militants assassinated a préfet, Paris’s representative on the island. But after the violence ended, “we won the battle of ideas”, says a senior party figure in Ajaccio, the capital. The party appeals to a sense of dégagisme, a popular backlash evident across France against established political parties and in favour of someone new.

The nationalists narrowly won previous local elections in 2015. Then in June this year they scooped three of the island’s four constituencies in the national legislature, displacing representatives of ancient dynastic families. “We have convinced people who never voted nationalist,” says Paul-André Colombani, one of the new MPs. Another MP, Jean-Félix Acquaviva, says Corsicans seek devolved powers similar to those enjoyed by Scotland within the United Kingdom. These include local control of police, expanded use of the Corsican language (which is closer to Italian than French) and some fiscal powers.

The question is whether Corsica, like Catalonia, might ultimately seek outright independence. A journalist in Ajaccio points out the difficulties: whereas wealthy Catalonia generates 19% of Spain’s GDP, Corsica is isolated and hard-up, accounting for less than 1% of France’s. Yet Mr Simeoni and his fellow nationalists have spent time studying the Catalan independence movement. Some of them went to Barcelona to observe the referendum in October.

One nationalist MP, who thinks perhaps a third of the island’s 330,000 people already want more autonomy, hopes that support for independence will rise enough to merit a referendum in a decade or so. For now, though, the two factions of the party—radical separatists and moderate advocates of autonomy—have agreed to bury the independence question until at least 2027.

The central government, meanwhile, has shown no interest in engaging with Corsican nationalists. Mr Macron has stayed aloof, says Mr Simeoni, though that might change after the election. France’s education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, upset the nationalists by tweeting in November that the country will allow only one language. “They have a Jacobin mentality,” says a Corsican politician, bemoaning France’s exceptionally centralised system of government.

Mr Macron may want to reconsider his intransigence. Places like Corsica and Brittany, which also harbours a regionalist movement, could be given more autonomy without threatening the French state. The alternative may be that harder-line nationalists grow more popular. In Vico, a mountain village farther north, Paul-Félix Benedetti of Rinnovu Naziunali, a separatist movement, drew a solid crowd during the campaign. “Free the Corsicans from oppression,” he proclaimed, railing against France’s “colonisation” of the island. Then he switched into Corsican. His party got less than 7% of the votes in the first round. But a decade ago few people took Catalan secessionism seriously, either.

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