PARIS — Corsican nationalists prevailed in regional elections on Sunday, possibly paving the way for greater autonomy from France.
The Mediterranean island — the storied birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte — is one of France's 18 administrative regions. For centuries, Corsica has harbored fierce, and even violent, separatist tendencies. In a climate of fragmentation across the European Union, a coalition of nationalist candidates won 56.5 percent of the vote, results that are likely to inspire a new wave of anti-Paris sentiment on the scenic, mountainous island.
The Corsican vote was not an independence referendum, although its results will likely boost a campaign to demand greater local control. In that vein, it fits with an atmosphere of growing separatism in Europe, where local independence movements have gained significant traction in a variety of nations. In October, for instance, a majority of voters in Catalonia backed splitting from Spain in a controversial referendum that the Spanish government had deemed illegal. In June 2016, Britain voted to leave the European Union. Now Scottish leaders are once again talking about an independence of their own.
Corsica is not Catalonia, which is the richest and most economically productive region in Spain. The island is still heavily dependent on funding from the French state, and the leaders of the For Corsica (Pè a Corsica) nationalist movement repeatedly emphasized throughout their campaign that their immediate goal was greater autonomy, not independence. Yet the nationalist ticket was led by both Gilles Simeoni, in favor of autonomy, and the pro-independence Jean-Guy Talamoni.
The results came as a blow to the centrist government of Emmanuel Macron, whose party won an absolute majority in the French Parliament following his landslide election in May. Macron will now likely have to decide whether to consider demands for greater autonomy for the island or stay the course with France’s highly centralized system of government. To date, Macron and his cabinet have shown little willingness — or interest — in dealing with Corsican separatists.
Following Sunday’s results, Macron’s party — Republic on the Move (République En Marche) — issued a statement that underscored how independence was not on the table.
“The project they have carried out is ambitious for Corsica and is not that of independence,” the statement said of Simeoni’s and Talamoni’s proposals. “We acknowledge these leaders.”
At the same time, it warned: “Only a constructive dialogue will mobilize the means of economic, environmental and social emancipation essential for Corsica and its inhabitants.”
Simeoni and Talamoni say they want official recognition of the Corsican language as well as special Corsican residency status, which would theoretically enable local officials to fight against property speculation they blame on foreign investors. They also want France to grant amnesty to a number of convicts they consider to be political prisoners.
For decades, Corsican militants menaced French government authorities and infrastructure on the island. The National Liberation Front of Corsica bombed multiple sites in Corsica and in the south of metropolitan France between the mid-1970s and 2014, when the group nominally called off its armed struggle.
For many in Paris, a bitter memory is the 1998 Ajaccio assassination of Claude Érignac, then the prefect, the French government’s highest representative on the island. Yvan Colonna, a Corsican nationalist, was convicted of the crime and is currently serving a life sentence in a prison in Toulon in southern France.