Later last week, French President Emmanuel Macron spent two days on the Mediterranean island of Corsica. No, it wasn’t a short winter break to get away from the snow blanketing Paris — it was a very necessary and politically demanding trip to shore up support for French nationalism on the island that’s located between France and Italy, above its sister island of Sardinia, which belongs to Italy.
Corsica has been part of France since 1768 or so, and its most famous son is Napoleon Bonaparte, whose French Imperial army influenced events from Portugal to Moscow, and from Egypt all the way to the island of Great Britain.
It’s a funny aside in modern European history that the three men who brought most chaos to the continent weren’t actually native sons of the nations they ruled; Napoleon was Corsican, not French, Adolf Hitler was Austrian-born, while Josef Stalin was a Georgian, not a Russian.
Come to think of it, the Duke of Wellington, who brought about the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815 was born in Ireland — a birthright that he firmly rejected. Just because you’re born in a stable doesn’t make you a horse, he would note.
But there are many Corsicans now who want to bolt from the French stable. Last December, Corsican nationalists took control of the island’s regional assembly, and of those Corsicans who cast ballots in the French parliament elections early last summer — the same elections that solidified Macron’s En Marche! Movement in power in the National Assembly with an overwhelming majority — 36 per cent of the island’s voters cast ballots for the ‘Pe a Corsica’ (For Corsica) party.
Naturally, the rise in support for Corsican nationalists at the polls is being likened to the rise of separatist parties in Catalonia over the past five years. Right now, Catalonia remains in a state of political limbo, unable to appoint Carles Puigdemont, who lives in exile in Belgium, as the president of the regional assembly, and Madrid is threatening to suspend Catalonia’s parliament and impose direct rule once again from the capital.
It’s a scenario that seems intractable — and the last thing that Macron needs now is Corsica taking any inspiration from the Catalonians some 150km away across the north-west Mediterranean.
Whatever the politics, the economics and practicalities of Corsican separatism are far different than in Catalonia. For starters, Corsica is poor, where the average income for the 330,000 who live there remains far lower than in the rest of France and lags 2 per cent behind the poorest region of mainland France. The average private sector salary on the island is low too, at about €800 (Dh3,622) per month. Without support from the central government in Paris, Corsica would fail to make ends meet.
In Catalonia, separatists say their region accounts for almost 19 per cent of Spanish gross domestic product and paid 16 per cent of more to Madrid’s tax authorities that they received in 2015. Unlike Corsica, Catalonia could be free-standing as an economic powerhouse with a population comparable to Switzerland. The Corsicans would make up a nation smaller than Iceland (332,000) in population terms, but bigger than Barbados (286,000), according to current United Nations estimates.
It contributes just 0.4 per cent to French GDP.
France has always held a tight control over the purity of its language, fighting off the introduction of Angloisms like “Le Weekend”. Corsica, however, has its own separate language, similar to French but far enough removed to dispel French linguists who would like to write it off as a dialect, such as Quebecois spoken in the Canadian province of Quebec. The daily greeting is “Bonghjornu” rather than the French “Bonjour”.
What Corsica does have, however, is a long history of violence by a radical minority who were determined to forge a separate state through terrorism. The National Liberation Front for Corsica (FNLC) for four decades targeted infrastructure and blew up vacant holiday homes. It also assassinated France’s top official on the island in 1998, Claude Erignac.
The FLNC only renounced violence in 2014, and the issue of amnesty for those convicted of terrorist crimes over the four-decade campaign is a sensitive issue for the separatists. Indeed, one of Macron’s first acts on the island last week was to meet with Erignac’s family — a message that Paris isn’t interested in dealing with the separatists.
For now, Pe a Corsica is happy to campaign for amnesty and give support to cultural groups and organisations that promote Corsican history, language and heritage.
Pe a Cosica 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. Even hardline Corsican separatists like the small U Rinnovu party have limited themselves to pushing for an independence referendum in 2032 at the earliest. There are keen expectations in the nationalist camp that their recent election gains could build momentum for greater autonomy — and that would lay the groundwork for full independence down the road.