French government floats Corsican ‘autonomy’ as election campaign turmoil erupts

President Emmanuel Macron’s government has said it is open to discussing Corsica’s “autonomy” in a bid to quell days of violent protests on the Mediterranean island just weeks before the French presidential election.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin dropped the first word when he set off for a two-day visit to Corsica on Wednesday, two weeks after a violent attack on a jailed Corsican led to a wave of unrest on Ile-des-Beauty (Island of Beauty).

“We are ready to go beyond autonomy. There you are, the word has been spoken,” Darmanin told the regional Corse Matin newspaper, a ground that has long been considered a taboo in the highly centralized republic of France.

He later told BFMTV, “The talks (about autonomy) will necessarily be long and difficult,” adding that whatever the outcome, “the future of Corsica is entirely within the French Republic.”

Why do Corsicans want more independence from France?

With Macron seeking re-election next month, it was inevitable that the bid from France’s “top policeman” would come under close scrutiny from rivals for the presidency, some of whom denounced an opportunistic move.

Conservative Republican candidate Valerie Pecres criticized the president for “giving in to violence”, while her far-right rival Marine Le Pen accused him of “cynical nepotism”. “Corsica must remain French,” she added.

“As always with this government, things have to turn ugly before you start looking for solutions,” said Green Party candidate Yannick Gadot, who, along with most left-wing candidates, spoke in favor of Mediterranean autonomy. average.

The visit of French Stato killer Darmanin follows a recurring outbreak of violence in protests sparked by a brutal attack on the prison of Yvan Colonna, one of a group of Corsican nationalists imprisoned for the 1998 murder of Corsica’s governor, Claude Irignac.

The interior minister said the convicted killer was attacked by a fellow jihadist inmate after he was reported to have made “blasphemous” statements at their prison in Arles, in southern France. He described the attack, which left Colonna in a coma, as a “clear terrorist act”.

>> READ MORE: Prison attack on a Corsican reopens old wounds on a troubled French island

However, Corsican nationalists blamed the French state for the attack on Colonna, seen by many as the heroine of the independence cause after he evaded capture for 1503 days while hiding in the forest lands of Corsica. They point to the French state’s longstanding refusal to transfer Colonna and his accomplices to a prison in Corsica, closer to their families.

French presidential election © France 24 Over the past two weeks, protesters have targeted government buildings and French symbols, including the national flag, as they march under crowds chanting “Statu francese Assassinu” (French state fatal). Prosecutors said about 102 people were injured on Sunday alone, 77 of them police officers, during clashes in Bastia, Corsica’s second largest city.

The government tried to quell the anger by lifting the “special prisoner” status that prevented Colonna and two of his accomplices from being transferred to a prison in Corsica. But the move failed to placate the protesters, whom the belated announcement further humiliated.

Specter of armed struggle Far from returning Corsican prisoners, nationalists have long been demanding greater powers for the island and recognition of Corsican as an official language. Such demands remain highly sensitive in France, where politicians routinely promote the need to protect the country’s unity and national identity.

After decades of violent struggle, nationalists in Corsica have embraced the democratic process over the past decade, hoping to advance their cause by peaceful means. But experts warn that patience is running out amid growing frustration with the lack of progress.

Demonstrators throw stones and torches at French gendarmes in Ajaccio, Corsica’s main city, on March 9, 2022. © Pascal Bouchard-Casabianca Macron has previously said he is open to adding a specific reference to Corsica in the French constitution, while further rejecting large demands for autonomy that Presented by the island’s national leaders.

Gilles Simeone, the national president of the Regional Council of Corsica, said Darmanin’s words “open up prospects, but they must now be expanded and consolidated”. He noted that autonomy is “a common law for many European regions and especially for all the main islands of the Mediterranean.”

Marie Antoinette Maupertes, president of the regional parliament, added that the island would need “strong signals before believing” that change was on paper.

An Ifop poll, published by Cors Matin, Wednesday, indicated that about half of the French would support the region’s autonomy. The same poll found that 60 percent opposed full independence, which only some Corsican nationalists advocate.

In an ominous sign, Corsica’s National Liberation Front, which carried out deadly attacks for decades before laying down its arms in 2014, warned Wednesday that it could resume its fight if Paris remained in “contempt denial”.

“If the French state remains deaf…the street battles today will quickly spread to the hills at night,” she said in a statement to Courcy Matin, referring to the 4,500 attacks it has claimed responsibility since the 1970s.

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