News analysis

France faces separatist demands as it ponders relationship with Corsica

LONDON - After Britain and Spain, it now seems to be the turn of France to confront demands for greater autonomy and face potential separation from nationalists in one of its territories.

In an effort to defuse potential troubles, President Emmanuel Macron has said that his government could consider changes in the relationship between mainland France and the Mediterranean island of Corsica, which seeks greater autonomy.

But Mr Macron has warned that the room for manoeuvre is limited. And Corsica's nationalists have already indicated that what is on offer by the central government in Paris is not enough to satisfy their separatist demands.

Although it has been part of France for well over 250 years, Corsica retains its distinct cultural identity; its language, food and social customs are closer to those of neighbouring Italy than those of mainland France.

The island is about 12 times bigger than Singapore in land area, but is home to a population of only 330,000 people. Its rugged beauty and expansive coastline have made Corsica one of France's major tourist attractions.

History has also put it on the map: It is the ancestral home of Emperor Napoleon, who was born in 1769 in the Corsican capital of Ajaccio less than two decades after the island was ceded to France.

Corsica already enjoys greater autonomy than other French regions: It is designated as a "territorial collectivity", which means that the island's 63 member-strong Corsican Assembly has greater local governance powers than most of the other French departments.

Although all opinion polls indicate that a large majority of Corsica's residents wish for the island to remain part of France, many of them want much more autonomy. At the latest regional assembly elections held in December, a two-party alliance, Pe a Corsica (For Corsica), won nearly two-thirds of seats, and its leader Gilles Simeoni is determined to put the status of his island on the political agenda.

"Now is the time to go from denial to recognition of the political nature of the Corsican question", he told politicians in Paris.

Mr Jean-Guy Talamoni, leader of Corsica Libera, part of Mr Simeoni's coalition, went even further by proclaiming that "Corsica is not just a French administrative constituency - it's a country, a nation, a people".

The nationalists want Corsican to be recognised as the island's official language, and for the regional assembly to be given powers to decide on its local taxes.

They are also asking for an amnesty for those convicted of separatist violent crimes and, more controversially, for the introduction of a ban on the purchases of local houses and land by people who have not lived on the island for at least five continuous years.

This demand echoes a traditional Corsican complaint against French mainlanders, and especially against migrants from old French colonies in north Africa, who have settled on the island over the past half century; barely half of the local population can now exclusively trace its origins to local Corsican families.

The central government is doing its best to avoid a showdown. It has appointed Ms Jacqueline Gourault, a junior minister in the Interior Ministry, to deal with the nationalists. Ms Gourault, nicknamed "Madame Corsica" by the French media, has said she is optimistic.She claims to have encountered a "climate of constructive openness with no willingness for confrontation" in her discussions.

Taking his cue from Mr Macron who struck a conciliatory tone, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has also spoken of a desire for dialogue with Corsica's politicians in a "spirit of mutual respect". And Corsican nationalist leader Simeoni has responded by emphasising his readiness for compromise, saying: "We are not in an all-or-nothing logic."

Still, it will be difficult for Paris to give way. The authorities can hardly be expected to restrict the right of French citizens to buy property on France's own territory. Cultural concessions are also not easy. As the French Constitution boldly states in its Article 2 that "the language of the Republic is French", a tricky constitutional amendment will be required if the residents are to be satisfied.

And almost two decades ago, France's Constitutional Council, the country's highest legal authority, had already ruled that the recognition of the "Corsican people", even if they are "designated as a component of the French people", remained contrary to the French Constitution.

France is discovering what Spain has already learnt from its own dispute with Catalan separatists: the legal frameworks of many European countries can hardly accommodate autonomy demands; amending laws is both highly controversial and time-consuming.

But, like all other nationalists in Europe, Corsica's newly-elected politicians believe that time is on their side.

"We plan on three years to build and obtain this status of autonomy, 10 years to implement it," said Mr Simeoni.