The French president, Emmanuel Macron, embarked on the electoral campaign for re-election, tried this Wednesday to stop the street disturbances in Corsica with an unexpected offer: a dialogue that could lead to the autonomy of the island. The condition for the dialogue is that calm be restored after almost two weeks of protests over the attack suffered in prison by Yvan Colonna (61 years old), the Corsican nationalist sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder, in 1998, of the prefect Claude Érignac .
No one in Paris seemed to remember this French island in the Mediterranean with its own language and, for decades, with a terrorist group that pursued independence. Corsica was no longer a problem. The Corsican National Liberation Front (FLNC) had laid down its arms in 2014. The nationalists have ruled for years with comfortable majorities. And, despite the tensions with President Macron, the problems that worried the island, the country and the world during these years were others: the yellow vestscovid, Ukraine.
But the pax corsicana It has begun to falter in recent weeks. The altercations ignite the main cities of the native island of Napoleon Bonaparte. The protesters, mostly teenagers and young men, attack public buildings and clash with law enforcement. “Status French assassinu!” (“Murderer French state!”), they shout.
The FLNC threatened this Wednesday to take up arms, while the Minister of the Interior, Gérald Darmanin, arrived on the island with an offer to calm things down. “We are willing to go to autonomy,” he told the newspaper Corse Matin.
The trigger for the crisis was the attack on Colonna, on March 2, in the Arles prison, in the south of mainland France. Colonna was left in a coma. The assailant was an Islamist prisoner who allegedly attacked the Corsican for having blasphemed. Protesters in Corsica accuse the state of not protecting the affected and criticize Paris for refusing to bring the “political prisoners”, as they are called, closer to the island.
The protesters’ reproaches are not directed only at Paris. They also accuse the island’s nationalist leaders, such as the president of the local Executive, the autonomist Gilles Simeoni, of not having extracted any substantial concessions from Macron since he came to power in 2017. Simeoni, before entering politics, was a lawyer of Colonna.
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In 2018, when Macron visited Corsica for the first time as president, he rejected three central demands of the nationalists: amnesty for prisoners, recognition of the co-official status of the Corsican language, and the exclusion of non-residents from buying property in the island to preserve the coastline and curb real estate expansion.
The president, on that occasion, opened the door to another request: the recognition, within the framework of a broader constitutional reform, of the particularity of the island in the very centralist French Constitution. But the constitutional reform was shelved and with it the debate on the status of Corsica.
The result: almost nothing has moved in these years. And Simeoni, a non-independence nationalist with a moderate disposition who, a prioriguaranteed harmony with Macron, now appears to the hardest nationalists as a softie who has been fooled by Paris.
The young people who take to the streets and confront the forces of order – “the Colonna generation”, they are called in the press – can puff up their chests and claim that, in ten days of unrest, they have achieved more from the State than the Corsican politicians in five years of Macron. In a few days, the French government has abolished the status of “particularly designated detainee”, which allows Colonna and other convicts to be brought closer to the island, and has put autonomy on the table.
It’s not little. But the problem will be to define what autonomy is. “We have to discuss it, and this takes time, because it is about the future of the Corsicans,” says Darmanin in Corse Matin. The minister added: “Everything is possible in the discussion we can have. But, from the outset, there is a precondition, which is a return to calm”.
In France, only the archipelago of New Caledonia, located at the antipodes of the terrestrial globe, enjoys an autonomy comparable to that of the Spanish autonomous communities or the land Germans. “These are important words that open up a perspective,” Simeoni reacted to Darmanin’s offer, “but now it’s time to develop and specify them.”
Darmanin’s offer is also not new. In 2019, during another visit to the island, Macron already spoke of an “autonomy in the Republic”. That is, within a constitutional framework that leaves very little room for one part of the country to approve its laws and policies on its own. Autonomy – if, as the Corsican nationalists wish, it is Spanish-style – it will be difficult to achieve without a profound constitutional reform in France.
It will not happen today, and certainly not before the presidential elections on April 10 and 24, dominated by the war in Ukraine. But the gestures of Paris, and the visit of Minister Darmanin, “illustrate the concern” in the face of the increase in violence, as summarized by the newspaper Le Monde. It was a fire that no one expected. And, while Colonna is still struggling between life and death, Macron, favorite for re-election, mobilizes his troops so that the fire does not spread.
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