Macron heads to Corsica to avert French repeat of Catalonia
French president Emmanuel Macron Tuesday begins a two-day visit to the Mediterranean island where a recently elected local administration is making demands for greater autonomy that the national government so far has indicated it can’t accept.
French governments have long struggled in their dealings with Corsica, an island of 330,000 that lies closer to Italy’s coast than France's with an independence movement that’s resorted to violence in the past. While the island’s current leaders have renounced pushing for statehood, they say they could change their minds if the national government doesn’t meet demands for a special status for Corsican residents and an official role for the island's distinct language. Both moves could violate the French constitution.
"Macron is a serious man and a believer in the state, and I don’t see how he can or will satisfy their demands," said Camille de Rocca Serra, a 63-year-old former president of Corsican assembly. "It’s not possible and it wouldn’t be beneficial. France is a unitary state, not a federation".
Macron's decision to spend two full days in Corsica is out of proportion to its population and economy, both equal to about 0.5% of all of France. But attention has been focused on Europe’s restive regions after Scotland narrowly voted against independence in 2014 and Spain was plunged into a constitutional crisis when Catalonia’s parliament last September unilaterally called for statehood. Two northern Italian regions voted last year to negotiate greater autonomy from Rome.
Macron Tuesday will attend a commemoration for Claude Erignac, the island’s prefect gunned down 20 years ago by separatists on the streets of Ajaccio. He was the ninth state official killed by separatists after the independence movement splintered in the 1970s and some turned violent.
He was also the last. The island's main guerrilla group renounced armed struggle in 2014, and various nationalist movements merged into a coalition that limited its demands to greater autonomy and won a majority in December’s elections for the island’s assembly.
Gilles Simeoni, who heads the island’s administration, and Jean-Guy Talamoni, the president of the assembly, met 22 and 23 January in Paris with prime minister Edouard Philippe, interior minister Gerard Collomb and senate president Gerard Larcher.
Afterwards, they called for a demonstration in Ajaccio on 3 February ahead of Macron's visit, saying the talks didn’t advance. The organisers claimed 25,000 marched under a steady rain Saturday, while police said 6,000, according to Agence France-Presse.
"We don’t want tensions, but last week they all signaled rejection of almost all the dossiers we presented," Simeoni said on 2 February on France 2 television. "That worries us - we don't want a standoff or a political crisis. That's why we are looking forward to the president's visit".
Simeoni and Talamoni were once rivals, with Simeoni being the first to drop independence for autonomy. Talamoni was present in Barcelona for Catalonia’s referendum, where he openly supported the separatists.
On Wednesday, Macron will give a speech in Bastia about his vision for Corsica. He'll also visit a farm, a cultural center and local companies during his two days on the island. His aides say he'll likely meet the nationalist leaders Tuesday night in Ajaccio, though that meeting hasn’t been confirmed.
"The dialog has started and will continue," government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux said on 1 February on Europe1 radio. "The president will give his vision of the future of the island and our projects to ensure access to lodging, transport".
Some of Macron's allies have said he should make some gesture toward the nationalists. Francois de Rugy, president of the national assembly and a member of Macron's LREM party, said on France 2 that "we need to recognise the specificity of Corsica. It’s an island, it has a strong identity, and a language that's still widespread".
The six LREM members of the 63-seat Corsican assembly joined the nationalist majority Saturday in approving a text calling on Macron to "open a dialogue without taboos".
Rocca Serra said he hopes and expects Macron will push more for promoting the island’s economy and culture, rather than meeting Simeoni and Talamoni’s political demands. He said the state could move government agencies to the island, and invest in renewable energy, water projects, and transportation.
In 2016, Corsica’s GDP per capita of €26,432 ranked 11th out of France's 13 regions, according to the Interior Ministry. About 28% of the island’s jobs are in the public sector, compared with 21% nationwide. About 37% of the houses on the island are second homes, which the nationalists blame for pricing out locals. They propose reserving homes for Corsican residents, but such restrictions would be constitutionally impossible, Rocca Serra said. The same goes for the Corsican language.
"Giving more emphasis on teaching Corsican is fine, but saying all government communication has to be in Corsican is absurd and anti-constitutional," said Rocca Serra, a member of former President Nicolas Sarkozy's The Republicans party, which had dominated the island's assembly for the past 30 years.