French President Emmanuel Macron arrived in Corsica on Tuesday for the start of a delicate two-day visit rich in symbolism, just days after thousands of Corsican nationalists staged a rally demanding greater freedom for the island.
Macron’s visit coincides with the 20th anniversary of the assassination of France’s top official in Corsica, Prefect Claude Erignac, who was shot dead by a pro-independence militant on February 6, 1998.
The French president was due to attend a ceremony honouring the slain prefect, before holding highly sensitive talks with the leaders of the island’s regional administration.
Corsican nationalists, who have governed the picturesque island of 330,000 people for the past two years, achieved their best-ever performance in December's regional election, trouncing Macron's party.
The Pè a Corsica (For Corsica) alliance won two-thirds of the seats in a new regional assembly, a result which it argued gave it a strong mandate to demand more autonomy from the highly centralised French state.
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Macron has previously said he is open to dialogue but ruled out making any changes to the constitution, a stance that effectively draws a red line on the nationalists’ flagship demand that the Corsican language be given official status.
Other demands include repatriating Corsican prisoners who are currently jailed on the mainland and changing housing rules so that only people who have been Corsican residents for five years can buy property on the “island of beauty”.
In a show of strength, the nationalist camp staged a peaceful march on Saturday in the island’s capital, Ajaccio, to press its demands. Organisers said 25,000 people attended the rally, while officials gave a far lower estimate.
"This is a mobilisation without precedent in recent years. It's huge," said Gilles Simeoni, the head of the regional administration, who unlike some of his coalition partners supports autonomy rather than full independence.
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The march opened with young girls wearing Corsican flag's over their shoulders, as the crowd chanted "long live the independence struggle" and "killer French state", in Corsican.
A sign on the lead car in the protest read "Amnistia", calling for amnesty for Corsican prisoners jailed for pro-independence violence.
Corsica, famed for being the birthplace of Napoleon, was once a hotbed of violent anti-French militancy. For decades militants waged a violent "national liberation" campaign, but in 2014 they announced a ceasefire.
Speaking to RTL radio on Monday, Simeoni said Macron's visit signalled a "historic window of opportunity to end the cycle of conflict."
However, he warned: "If the road to dialogue remains closed we would be in a crisis situation and a political dead-end."
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)
Date created : 2018-02-06