Macron heads to nationalist Corsica for high-stakes visit

Emmanuel Macron embarks on one of the trickiest visits of his young presidency Tuesday when he travels to Corsica, a nationalist bastion demanding greater freedom from the highly centralised French state.

Macron heads to nationalist Corsica for high-stakes visit
Thousands of Corsican nationalists marched peacefully on Saturday in advance of the visit. Photo: AFP
Macron's visit comes two months after a nationalist alliance trounced Macron's centrist Republic on the Move party in regional elections, boosting their quest for greater autonomy for the island of 330,000 people.
On Saturday, thousands of nationalists set the tone for his two-day stay with a peaceful march in the island's capital Ajaccio to demand “democracy” and “respect for the Corsican people”.
Speaking to RTL radio on Monday, the leader of the regional government, Gilles Simeoni, said Macron's visit had the potential to be “historic”.
“There is an historic window of opportunity to end the cycle of conflict,” Simeoni said, referring to the nearly four-decade bombing campaign conducted by the National Liberation Front of Corsica (FLNC) before a 2014 ceasefire.
Thousands of Corsican nationalists march ahead of Macron visit
Photo: AFP
'Corsica is a nation'
The Corsican question has plagued French governments for decades.
Unlike Catalonia, leaders of the picturesque island where Napoleon Bonaparte was born have stressed that they are not seeking full independence — for the time being.
The island remains economically dependent on the mainland.
Macron had suggested during campaigning for president that he was prepared to go further than his predecessors in recognising the distinct nature of Corsica, which has its own language.
But so far his government has appeared reluctant to give into the nationalists' demands, particularly the idea of an amnesty for prisoners jailed for separatist violence.
Other demands include expanded use and recognition of the Corsican language and measures to give locals preferential access to the property market — a move aimed at keeping out wealthy mainlanders.
The official purpose of Macron's visit is to commemorate Claude Erignac, the state's top representative on the island who was assassinated 20 years ago in a nationalist attack that shocked the country and brought tens of thousands of Corsicans onto the street in protest.
Macron will lead a ceremony at the spot in Ajaccio where Erignac was gunned down while on the way to the theatre with his wife.
Simeoni, a moderate nationalist, will attend the ceremony but his more radical coalition partner, separatist assembly president Jean-Guy Talamoni, will pointedly stay away.
In an opinion piece in Le Monde, Talamoni urged Macron to “send a very strong sign of openness and dialogue” on his visit.
“The message of the people of Corsica is clear,” Talamoni wrote, declaring that Corsicans saw their island “as a nation and not just an administrative unit”.
President of the Corsican assembly Jean Guy Talamoni. Photo: AFP
On Wednesday, Macron will set out his policy on Corsica in a highly-anticipated speech in the northern city of Bastia.
For a hint of his thinking his advisers have referred reporters to a campaign speech in April 2017.
The then candidate had stressed that Corsica was an integral part of France but said: “If it becomes clear that the current context does not allow Corsica to develop its potential, we could envisage going further and revising the constitution.”
Macron's party split
The issue of how much freedom to give Corsica has caused a split within Macron's own Republic on the Move party.
Six Corsican party members last week backed a resolution setting out the nationalists' demands, earning a rebuke from party leader Christophe Castaner.
Saturday's march on the islands was aimed as a show of force ahead of the visit.
Protest organisers said up to 25,000 people attended the demonstration, but officials gave a far lower estimate of some 6,000.
A longtime hotbed of anti-French militancy, which suffered thousands of bombings between the 1970s and 2000s — mostly targeting state infrastructure — Corsica has enjoyed a measure of stability in recent years.
The FLNC called a ceasefire in 2014 to give space to the political process but some nationalists have warned the violence could resume if the state refused the islanders' demands.
Simeoni described the situation as “potentially explosive”.
“If the road to dialogue remains closed we would be in a crisis situation and a political dead-end,” he said.
By AFP's Jerome Rivet and Loic Vennin


‘Red lights’ as over-tourism threatens Corsican nature reserve

"It's nature's magical design," says a tourist guide, waxing poetic as he comments on the impressive red cliffs plunging into a turquoise sea at the Scandola nature reserve on France's Corsica island.

'Red lights' as over-tourism threatens Corsican nature reserve
A fisherman sails at sunrise off Ajaccio, Corsica. Photo: AFP

“Amazing!” exclaims Irena Snydrova, a Czech tourist visiting the UNESCO World Heritage site with her family, along with groups from Italy, Spain and France.

Their boat sidles up to the Steps of Paradise, rocks shaped into a stairway some 15 metres long, then glides on to Bad Luck Pass, a former pirates' redoubt.

The ages have sculpted the volcanic cliffs into myriad shapes that beguile the visitor, who might imagine a kissing couple here, a horse's head there, Napoleon's two-cornered hat further on…

The park, created in 1975, is an ecological dream, being a nature reserve and a protected marine zone that is listed by France's coastal protection agency and Natura 2000, in addition to its recognition by UNESCO.

It is a prime destination for the some three million people who visit Corsica each year, 75 percent of them in the summer.

The paradox is that growing numbers of tourists are drawn to Scandola's pristine waters and stunning geological vistas, endangering its fragile ecosystem.

The park, reached only by boat some 40 minutes from the tiny port of Porto,
stretches over 10 square kilometres of sea, and a somewhat smaller area of land.

“The reserve is a jewel for Corsica and the Mediterranean, but several red lights are flashing,” says marine biologist Charles-Francois Boudouresque, listing flora and fauna at risk, including ospreys, seagrass and fish species such as the brown meagre.

The tourist season coincides with the ospreys' mating season, notes Boudouresque, an emeritus professor at the Mediterranean Institute of Oceanography.

Because of over-tourism, ospreys' “reproductive success is zero or near zero, with either no chicks or just one chick” per year, he says.

Boudouresque, who also heads Scandola's scientific advisory council, says the osprey could become extinct in 50 years.

Since last month, at the urging of the scientific council, boats must keep a distance of at least 250 metres from ospreys' nests during the breeding season.

“It's a good start,” Boudouresque says.

As for the marine park's fish species, Boudouresque says he thinks the thrumming of the tourist boats is scaring them away.

But a crew member, who gave his name only as Diego, blamed groupers for the declining population of corb. “They eat everything,” he told AFP.

Tensions have arisen pitting tour boat operators and fishermen against the reserve's conservationist Jean-Marie Dominici.

Boudouresque says the seagrass “is not in the best shape,” blaming the anchors dropped by the many boats — some of them private vessels without authorised guides.

“It's bizarre for a nature reserve to see all these boats,” said Pierre Gilibert, a 65-year-old doctor, who is a regular visitor. “It might be wise to allow access only to professional boats.”

Many share the opinion that private boats are not sufficiently monitored or informed of ecological concerns.

“This morning we saw people climbing on the rocks and berthing their boats in narrow passageways, which is not allowed,” said Gabriel Pelcot, chief mechanic on a cruise ship of the Corsican company Nave Va.

Nave Va, as well as rival Via Mare, uses hybrid vessels: they are powered by diesel up to the edge of the marine park, then switch to electric for a quieter and less polluting presence.

Pelcot notes that this green option is 30 percent more expensive, but he expects it to catch on.

“We must find a compromise between the need for tourists to enjoy this natural treasure and that of not killing the goose that laid the golden egg,” Boudouresque says.

The marine biologist is optimistic that general awareness of the problems is growing.

He envisions ways to marry tourism with preservation. One example, he says, would be to focus cameras on ospreys' nests so that they can be observed without being disturbed.

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