News analysis

Headache for Paris as Corsica asserts itself

Demands of nationalists on island that's been French for 250 years may prove too much

After Britain and Spain, it now seems to be the turn of France to confront separatists' demands for greater autonomy in one of its territories.

In a bid to defuse potential troubles, President Emmanuel Macron has said his government could consider changes in the relationship between mainland France and the Mediterranean island of Corsica, which is seeking greater autonomy.

But he also warned that the room for manoeuvre is limited. And Corsica's nationalists have already indicated that what is offered by Paris is not enough to satisfy their separatist demands.

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

Home to 330,000 people, the island's rugged beauty and expansive coastline have made it one of France's major tourist attractions. The island already enjoys more autonomy than other French regions: it is designated as a "territorial collectivity", which means that the Corsican Assembly has greater governance powers than most of the other French departments.

Although all opinion polls indicate that a large majority of residents wish for the island to remain part of France, many of them want much more autonomy.

In the assembly elections in December, a two-party alliance, Pe a Corsica (For Corsica), won nearly two-thirds of seats, and its leader Gilles Simeoni wants 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 decide on local taxes.

They also want an amnesty for those convicted of separatist violent crimes and, more controversially, a ban on 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 the mainlanders, and especially migrants from old French colonies in north Africa, who have settled on the island over the past 50 years.

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. Nicknamed "Madame Corsica" by the media, Ms Gourault claims to have encountered "constructive openness with no willingness for confrontation" in her discussions.

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

Still, it will be difficult for Paris to give way. It 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 states that "the language of the Republic is French", a tricky constitutional amendment will be required.

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

France is discovering what Spain has already learnt: many European legal frameworks can hardly accommodate autonomy demands; amending the laws is both highly controversial and time-consuming.

But, like all other nationalists in Europe, Corsica's 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.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 13, 2018, with the headline 'Headache for Paris as Corsica asserts itself '. Print Edition | Subscribe