Corsica: Why France’s ‘Island of Beauty’ is not the new Catalonia

French president Emmanuel Macron heads to Corsica for a crucial visit on Tuesday amid a rise in nationalist sentiment on the so-called "Island of Beauty". But are comparisons with Catalonia really merited?

Corsica: Why France's 'Island of Beauty' is not the new Catalonia

Nationalist gains at the ballot box in Corsica may have earned the French island comparisons with Catalonia, but even its hardcore separatists admit that breaking away is a distant dream.

The ruling alliance of separatists and pro-autonomy candidates enjoyed success in last year's regional elections.

The score represented a ten-point rise in the Pe a Corsica (“For Corsica”) alliance's showing when they came to power at the local level two years ago on the island where Napoleon was born.

Like Spain's Catalonia, the stunningly beautiful island wedged between France and Italy has its own language, a proud identity and a history of testy relations with the central government.

But while the Catalan separatists led by Carles Puigdemont went as far as a full-blown independence declaration, Corsican nationalists are sticking to more modest goals.

Energised by last year's gains to push for more autonomy, they have already revived three demands long rejected by Paris.

They want equal recognition for the Corsican language and an amnesty for convicts they consider to be political prisoners.

And they want the state to recognise a special Corsican residency status — partly an effort to fight property speculation fuelled by foreigners snapping up holiday homes.

These are sensitive issues on an island where a four-decade bombing campaign by the National Liberation Front of Corsica (FLNC) — mainly targeting state infrastructure — was called off only in 2014.

The worst nationalist attack saw France's top official on the island, Claude Erignac, assassinated in 1998.

Nationalism, the new normal

Calm returned when the FLNC laid down its weapons — which, according to political analyst Jerome Fourquet, has helped to “normalise nationalism”.

The nationalists have become “a responsible, presentable political force”, Fourquet wrote in a report for the Jean Jaures Foundation.

As part of this more moderate approach, nationalists assure that an immediate independence bid is not on the table.

Even separatist leader Jean-Guy Talamoni — nicknamed by some “the Corsican Puigdemont” — suggests the island would split from France in 10 or 15 years at the earliest, if a majority supported it.

Yet opinion polls show that most of Corsica's 330,000 residents, many of whom live off seasonal tourism and rely heavily on state subsidies, want to stay part of France.

Even in the northern village of Belgodere, where nationalists scored 90.22 percent last Sunday, the result was largely a reflection of local problems.

“I'm not voting out of political allegiance, or for autonomy or independence,” said Jean-Paul Pernet, the village's only doctor, who backed
the nationalists.

He voted, he said, “for people who will bring concrete plans” to rural areas that feel isolated and neglected by authorities.

Much poorer than Catalonia

The nationalists' opponents have repeatedly raised the prospect of Corsica being “the next Catalonia”.

But Andre Fazi, a politics lecturer at Corsica University, dismissed a Catalonia-style independence bid as a “fantasy”.

For Thierry Dominici, a Corsica specialist at the University of Bordeaux, the main barrier to independence is the island's heavy economic dependence on
the mainland.

That is not the case for Catalonia, where chief among many separatists' complaints is that their wealthy region, representing a fifth of Spain's economic output, does not get enough back for what it pays into national coffers.

Corsica, by contrast, represents just 0.4 percent of the French economy, suffering from higher unemployment and poverty rates than the mainland.

“An economically viable Corsica — I don't think we'll see it in my lifetime,” Dominici said.

“Even in terms of constitutional law, it's a completely different situation,” he added.

While Catalonia already enjoys widespread autonomy in policy areas such as health, education and policing, “France is the most centralised unitary state
in Europe,” Dominici said.

Even hardline Corsican separatists like the small U Rinnovu party have limited themselves to pushing for an independence referendum in 2032.

But there are keen expectations in the nationalist camp that their election gains could build momentum for greater autonomy.

“The state has everything to gain in responding to at least one of their three demands,” Dominici said.

“If it does nothing, the islanders will take to the streets. The nationalists won't even have to ask them to do it.”


UPDATED: Police break up separatist protest on Spain-France route

Catalan separatists once again blocked routes linking Spain and France on Wednesday morning in an ongoing protest to try to draw international attention to the Catalan independence issue.

UPDATED: Police break up separatist protest on Spain-France route
Spanish policemen face Catalan separatist activists blocking traffic on a motorway linking France and Spain.Photos: AFP

Police on Wednesday managed to disperse Catalan separatist protesters from a busy motorway linking Spain and France, reopening the road in both directions after more than 48 hours of intermittent blockages.

The demonstration caused chaos on an artery which is particularly important for cross-border freight transport and is used by some 20,000 lorries per day.   

The highway jam began on Monday morning when hundreds of activists flocked to the border area of La Jonquera, blocking the busy AP7 motorway linking northeastern Spain and southern France.

Organised by activist group Democratic Tsunami, it was just the latest operation in an ongoing campaign of protest that began in mid-October when Spain's top court jailed nine separatist leaders over a failed 2017 independence bid.   

Although the blockage was briefly cleared by French and Spanish police on Tuesday morning, protesters shifted their action some 65 kilometres (40 miles) further south, where the motorway passes through the city of Girona.

With the motorway impassable, many cars and trucks were stuck there overnight.

Also Tuesday, demonstrators blocked another cross-border motorway in Irun, at the other end of the Pyrenees, linking Spain's Basque country with southwestern France, calling their protest “Operation Snail”.

By Wednesday morning, clashes broke out at the Girona site where masked protesters torched barricades and hurled stones at the security forces who eventually managed to disperse them, the Catalan regional police said.

Democratic Tsunami, which managed to flood Barcelona airport with some 10,000 protesters on the day of the verdict, is a recently-formed group that says it does not depend on separatist parties or civil associations for support.   

Its leaders remain unknown and they keep in touch with each other through encrypted messaging apps such as Wire.

The protests were also backed by activists from the radical CDR, which has also vowed to continue its direct action.   

“As long as there are hostages… and we do not have the right to self-determination, there will be chaos. Independence or barbarism!” it tweeted on Wednesday.