Columns, Opinion

Worldview: The futile cause for autonomy and independence in Corsica

The beautiful, teardrop-shaped Mediterranean island of Corsica is best known around the world as the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte. Perhaps in part because of this, the inhabitants of Corsica have developed an impressive pugnacity which they have directed against the French government for the past 40 years.

Despite being a part of France since 1768, the island has maintained its unique culture which has a much closer affinity to Italy than it does to France. Nationalism is therefore very strong on the island, and perceived French negligence to Corsican affairs has fueled the Pè a Corsica party (which translates to “For Corsica”), which is a coalition of moderate autonomists and more radical secessionists.

In 2015, Pè a Corsica won a plurality in territorial elections and elected its autonomist leader Gilles Simeoni as president of the Executive Council of Corsica, which is roughly equivalent to being elected governor. In December, Pè a Corsica scored a huge victory, gaining 17 seats in the election, granting them over 60 percent of the available seats.

With the Western Mediterranean region still reeling over the catastrophe that was the Catalan independence referendum in October of last year, fear of independence sentiments spilling over from nearby Catalonia to Corsica would seem to be a tangible fear for Macron’s government. However, based on his muted response to the success of Pè a Corsica, this is not a high priority for Paris. Simeoni lamented, in reference to the days of armed resistance to the French administration which ended in 2014, that “People are saying, ‘At least when we had bombs, they listened to us.’”  

Perhaps the reason for Macron’s cool response to Simeoni and his followers is that he is aware of the futility of Corsica’s position. Although Pè a Corsica is a nationalist organization, it is the moderate pro-autonomists who make up the majority of the party’s base. The ascension of Pè a Corsica was less an indication of increasing radicalism than it was of an increasingly moderate platform. This is in part due to the cessation of violence by the National Liberation Front of Corsica (FLNC) in 2014, and Simeoni subsequent moderation of the party. Thierry Dominici, an expert on Corsica from the University of Bordeaux, noted that “There’s been a ‘massification’ of nationalism, it’s a nationalism that is now inclusive.”  

This “massification” of nationalism, however, has not corresponded with increased chauvinism. Corsica is heavily dependent on French subsidies, and, unlike Catalonia, has no plausible path to self-sufficiency and independence. Jean-Paul Pernet, the sole doctor in the village of Belgodere, where nationalists earned 90.22 percent of the vote, remarked: I’m not voting out of political allegiance, or for autonomy or independence.” Instead, Pernet said he supported the nationalists because he wants “… people who will bring concrete plans” to the rural parts of Corsica.

Pernet’s mindset is common throughout Corsica. President of the Corsican Assembly and firm nationalist Jean-Guy Talamoni admitted this much, acknowledging that although the nationalists did receive overwhelming support, “… they won’t vote for independence until they are assured of material stability.” With a 20 percent lower GDP per capita than the rest of France, 10 percent unemployment, and a less than one percent growth rate, Corsica will likely never be in a position of sufficient material stability to warrant an independence referendum.

All these things considered, Macron’s substanceless concessions to Corsica which he unveiled this month are likely going to be the most Corsicans are going to get from Paris unless the situation changes drastically. During his visit to the island this month, Macron revealed his support for a Constitutional article which would make specific reference to Corsica. Macron told Corsican officials: “I want everyone in the [French] Republic to be able to claim their identity, their specificity. But if this specificity is to be the Republic’s enemy, then it’s an error and I cannot accept it.”

Corsica’s situation is unique from those of Catalonia and Scotland. Since it lacks substantial material wealth, the country’s platform lacks a critical leverage which enabled the former’s ability to gain recognition and coverage. This is an element of independence movements which often goes ignored, but it is indicative of the ruthlessness of the international system and media. Corsica’s cause is equally just as those of Catalonia and Scotland, but its weak position all but guarantees that the status quo will be maintained for the foreseeable future.

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