Corsican nationalists call for 'real autonomy' but suspend bid for independence
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Corsican nationalists made significant gains in the first round of elections to the Corsican Assembly on Sunday, prompting the Pè a Corsica alliance to challenge Paris to draw up plans for "real autonomy" within three years.
The Pè a Corsica (For Corsica) coalition – an alliance of Gilles Simeoni's autonomist Femu a Corsica (Let's Build Corsica) and Jean-Guy Talamoni's pro-independence Corsica libera (Free Corsica) – won more than 45 percent in Sunday's first round, leaving them almost certain to control the unicameral Corsican Assembly after a second round vote on December 10.
The nationalist alliance is calling for a plan for "real autonomy" to be drawn up within three years and implemented within the next decade. Among its demands are for the Corsican language to be granted official status on a par with French, a “resident” status to be established that would protect locals from property speculation, and amnesty for imprisoned members of nationalist armed groups and those that remain in hiding.
However, both party leaders have emphasised that they are not pushing for immediate independence for the island but simply for more autonomy.
"The question of independence is not on the table today," said Simeoni, whose party leads the alliance, in comments to France's Europe 1 radio. "We want autonomous status.”
Speaking to France Inter radio, Talamoni said the issue of true independence would not be addressed for at least another decade, but still remained a possibility. "If a majority of Corsicans want [independence] in 10 or 15 years, nobody will be able to oppose it," he said.
The victory has solidified the alliance between autonomists and separatists, proving that their pragmatic strategy of joining forces is bearing fruit: The 45.36 percent of the vote they garnered on Sunday far surpassed the 35 percent they had hoped to win.
For historian Michel Vergé-Franceschi, author of A History of Corsican Identity, from its Origins to Today, Sunday's poll was "a historic victory for Corsica" – notably due to the precipitous decline of the “parties from Paris ". Indeed, local conservatives from La Voie de l'Avenir (Future Path) came in second place with 14.97 percent of the vote, ahead of France’s main opposition Les Républicains conservatives (12.77 percent), while President Emmanuel Macron's centrist La République en marche party garnered only 11.26 percent.
"For the nationalists, these are significant gains that confirm the momentum first seen in the regional elections of December 2015 that propelled Gilles Simeoni to the presidency of Corsica’s executive council and Jean-Guy Talamoni to the head of the Corsican Assembly," Vergé-Franceschi said.
"This is a very strong signal to Paris," Simeoni said after the vote. "We want peace, we want democracy, we want to construct an emancipated island. It's up to Paris to take steps so that we can work out a political solution together."
A mountainous Mediterranean island with a unique language and a special administrative status, Corsica is home to 330,000 inhabitants. The island’s economy is heavily reliant on tourism, and lots of businesses close down for the winter. Many of the jobs available on the island are within the French public sector and the local economy remains dependent on French national funds. Pro-France candidates argue that advances by Corsican nationalists risk driving away investors and hurting the economic development the region badly needs.
Talamoni expressed the hope that the alliance will be able to meet with French government representatives as early as January.
A future divide
Despite their nationalist alliance’s unexpectedly strong showing, Simeoni and Talamoni do not necessarily share a vision for Corsica’s long-term future.
"Gilles Simeoni is an autonomist who is convinced that the majority of Corsicans will not want independence. He upholds the ideal of a Corsica anchored in the French Constitution but with the full right to self-administer," including managing its own administration and infrastructure, said Paul-François Torre, adjunct director for editorial coordination at the France 3 Corsica TV news station.
As for Talamoni, he has recently chosen a more conciliatory approach to securing more sovereignty.
"He understood that it was necessary to persuade the Corsicans, not force them,” said Torre. “Without denying his 40-year alliance with the Corsican National Liberation Front (FLNC), he played the democracy card to play down the threat of clandestine violence, which until now had stopped him from opening a dialogue with the nationalists.”
The FLNC’s renunciation of violence in 2014 was a precondition for the alliance between the autonomists and the separatists. Before the FLNC declared the ceasefire it had waged a nearly four-decade-long bombing campaign in its quest for independence, killing France's top official on the island, Claude Érignac, in 1998.
The day after their joint victory, the two men announced their agreement to join forces for the next 10 years.
"We have agreed a mandate with our autonomist partners for 10 years,” Talamoni confirmed to France Inter. “So there will not be, during this decade, any moves toward full independence."
At about the same time, Simeoni told Europe 1: "The separatists today have presented themselves as committed to an exclusively democratic framework and say that it is the Corsicans who will decide. If the Corsicans do not want independence, there will be no independence.”
This article was translated from the original in French.