Time for an answer to 'the Corsican question'

Corsica is known as the 'Island of Beauty'
Corsica is known as the 'Island of Beauty'

THE ‘CORSICAN question’ - demands for autonomy or independence for the island of Corsica - has long been a thorn in the side of France, and things have come to a head with the second round win in December. 

It is the first time ever a group of nationalists have won the regional election.

Below we present a translation of a French writer’s analysis of this situation plus an interview with one of the founders of the Corsican nationalist movement, medical doctor Edmond Simeoni.

Although Corsica is treated as one of the  French regions, technically the Corsican Territorial Collectivity has a slightly different status. Its main elected body is the Assemblée Corse - to which councillors were elected in December - and from this a Conseil Exécutif is appointed, which acts as a mini government with limited powers.

The elections saw separate autonomist and independentist groups win respectively 17.6% and 7.7% of the vote at the first round, after which the lists merged, winning 35.3% at the second round - a relative majority. Jean-Guy Talamoni of independentists Corsica Libera is now president of the Assemblée while Gilles Simeoni of autonomist party Femu A Corsica is president of the Exécutif. Both are lawyers and Mr Simeoni is the Mayor of Bastia and the son of veteran autonomy campaigner Edmond.

Mr Talamoni celebrated the win with a triumphant speech in Corsican at the assembly, after which a French government spokesman said they would not be allowing “the [independence] debate to escalate” but added that “we’re quite tolerant, on condition that the rules of the Republic are respected afterwards.”

In the latest of a series of measures tinkering with Corsica’s ‘status’, the island is set by 2018 to become a ‘single collectivity’, with the two departmental councils for Corse-du-Sud and Haute-Corse merging with the territorial collectivity.

Read on for more on the complex and fascinating ‘Corsican question’ - and to delve more into Corsican culture check out the comic book Asterix in Corsica (one of the best in the series) or comic book and film adaptation L’Enquête Corse.

France needs a referendum on independence

This article, by DENIS JEAMBAR, first appeared in the magazine Challenges. It has been translated by Oliver Rowland.

 THE VICTORY of the nationalists in the territorial elections on the island of Corsica brings more than ever to the fore the whole question of the ‘single, indivisible’ Republic of France.

“If the Corsicans want their independence, let them take it!” – with this provocative declaration in 1996, MP Raymond Barre sparked off a political rumpus.

Nineteen years have passed – and this proposal is more newsy than ever with the arrival at the head of the regional government, since December 13 last year, of autonomists and nationalists. It is as if nothing can ever be sorted out in Corsica without this question finally being asked.

For 40 years now it has been one of the most festering issues in the French Republic. Not a single government over the last 40 years has escaped from having to deal with the ‘Corsican question’.

It all started on August 21, 1975 at Aléria, on the east coast of the island. On that day a group of autonomist militants, led by Dr Edmond Simeoni, founder of Action Régionaliste Corse (ARC), took control by force of a wine cellar owned by a settler from Algeria.

Their goal was to denounce a scam and defend the small wine growers who were victims of it. Taken by surprise, the French government deployed enormous means to get the occupants out of the cellar – 1,200 gendarmes and CRS riot police, armoured cars and six helicopters. On August 22 an attack was launched and the cellar was liberated after three minutes of gunfire which ended with two deaths among the forces of law and order and one person seriously injured among the autonomists.

Those three minutes marked the start of Corsican radicalisation and the birth of the Front de Libération Nationale Corse (FLNC), a few months later.

Of course, Corsica has been a thorn in the side of France for much longer than that. In reality that dates back to the Treaty of Versailles of May 15, 1768, which saw the Republic of Genoa cede Corsica to France, and in doing so free itself from a rebellious people who, since 1755 under the leadership of Pascal Paoli, had adopted a constitution establishing their independence.

After becoming a French department in 1790 the island became English for two years, from 1794 to 1796, even briefly dubbing itself ‘Kingdom of Corsica’.

Taken back by the French troops, Corsica has been unruly ever since, even inspiring, so it is said, [the politician] Clémenceau to say: “What is the solution to the Corsican problem? It should be submerged for five minutes.”

Indeed, as an MP in 1871, he asked for it to be given back to Italy. He forgot about the idea afterwards. It is true that many Corsicans died for France during the First World War and also during the Second. The first territory to be liberated in October 1943, the island even inspired these words by General de Gaulle at Ajaccio: “We must lose no time in learning the lessons from this page of history that has just been written by French Corsica”.

We can understand nothing of the Corsican question without remembering the past. Nothing has ever been easy with this territory which thought it was going to become a free republic back in the 18th century. And everything is complicated since the events of Aléria, which brought back to the surface an old nationalism that no government since has been able to defuse.

And yet they have all had a go at a reform: ‘special status’ in 1982; ‘Pierre Joxe status’ in 1991; ‘Jospin status’ in 2000 after the ‘Matignon process’; rejection by a referendum of the proposed ‘single regional authority’ imagined by then Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy in July 2003; adoption in July 2015 of a new proposal for a single regional authority for Corsica...

So many attempts... so many failures, and a nationalist fervour which sometimes erupts in violence and even bloodshed, most notably with the assassination of the prefect, Erignac, in 1998.

Since June 25, 2014 the powers that be no doubt thought they had finished with this long, difficult story. On that day the FLNC announced it was giving up the armed struggle “with no preliminaries and absolutely no ambivalence”.

However they probably did not pay enough attention to the last part of the statement, since the nationalists announced a new phase: “the construction of a political force to govern Corsica and lead it to its independence”.

No one was expecting it, François Hollande and Manuel Valls no more than anyone else, but this project is, today, under way and has just reached an important milestone with the victory of the nationalists in the territorial elections on the island on December 13.

This has brought together the autonomists of Femu A Corsica, led by Gilles Simeoni (son of Edmond) who has been mayor of Bastia since 2014 and was a lawyer for Yvan Colonna who was found guilty of the murder of the prefect Erignac, and the independentists of Corsica Libera, led by Jean-Guy Talamoni, also a lawyer.

United, they grabbed 35.34% of the votes at the second round, obtaining a relative majority, and won the presidency of the Executive Council of the Corsican authority. The tone was set on Thursday December 17 when from the podium of this assembly Jean-Guy Talamoni made a speech in Corsican, saying: “The Corsican people have said that Corsica is not a bit of another country but a nation, with its language, its culture, its political traditions.”

The situation is clear. Certainly, it is no longer a question of violence, and Simeoni is not as radical as Talamoni, but this nationalist movement is, in itself, as worrying as the rise of the Front National. It raises the question of the single, indivisible Republic, faced with a now barely-concealed breakaway plan.

The government has been negligent over this – it did not see it coming. The Socialist Party has, for that matter, been routed, with just three and a bit per cent at the first round of the re gional elections. It is now impossible to act like an ostrich and ignore these election results.

Of course this alliance of autonomists and independentists only represents a good third of the Corsican electorate, but now they are in power and will do all they can to thrive. But how far will they go?

One may imagine that François Hollande would be too careful to take the slightest political risk over this. No doubt he has in mind the misfortunes that Lionel Jospin had over this issue: his status plan caused his then Interior Minister Jean-Pierre Chevènement to resign and put himself forward as a presidential candidate in 2002, which was one reason why Jospin was eliminated in the first round.

However the Corsican issue is so impor­tant it deserves more than just to be drawn out yet again.

The Corsicans have made a choice which says a great deal about their aspirations. It is therefore time to back them into a corner and ask them by referendum, as Ray­mond Barre also used to suggest, to make a decision about their independence.

The result would at least have the merit of clarifying things once and for all: a ‘no’ would allow the case to be closed, a ‘yes’ would speed up the inevitable.

However it is worth betting that this will not happen.

 We are 15 months away from a presidential election and it is not time for audacity, but instead for window dressing with a mushy show of national harmony. 

‘State has to respect the wishes of people of Corsica’

EDMOND Simeoni, 82, one of the founders of the Corsican nationalist movement, told Connexion the recent elections are a real shot in the arm for their dreams of autonomy.

A long-time supporter of autonomy, rather than full independence, he agrees it is now time for a referendum to be held. He has been campaigning since the 1960s.

He said: “It’s been 55 years of hard struggle, especially as we’ve often been seen as terrorists, whereas our demands have been made legally and constitutionally. It went so far that from 1977 to 1989 with the arrival of Mitterrand in power, we were subjected to more than 65 attacks by the French police and the state was totally indifferent.

“Objectively it must have been aware of the problem, but I think they were pleased about the difficulties we were going through.”

He said the years of struggle led to three different special statuses for Corsica and now a fourth is being prepared.

“Why have they not worked? Because the state, which is a centralist nation-state, internationalist on the world stage and in earlier times imperialist, does not want to admit that within France there are different cultures, different languages, other than the strictly French one. It’s very hostile to real decentralisation. If you look at Europe there are around 96 autonomous areas and 300 million people who live in a regionalised, federalised system politically, including the UK with devolution for Scotland. So though we’ve had new statuses every decade, they have been feeble and insufficient ones, partly because they were not accompanied by efforts to reduce clientelism, clanism. Instead of preventing this from prospering, the state supported it.

“After these long years of struggles – legal ones on our part, illegal, armed ones by the FLNC for independence – after arrests, around 200 deaths, after more than 10,000 attacks by the clandestine groups, the state has still never understood that Corsica is not metropolitan France.

“The victory that we have now had is the result of the accumulation of patient work over decades, which has included mobilising the Corsican diaspora worldwide and going to Europe over abuses by the French police.

“A political victory is always preceded by an ideological victory, and for four or five years all our main themes: the Corsican people, the Corsican nation – which does not necessitate setting up a state – and the will to build a common future, blingualism, revision of the French constitution, a statute of autonomy, have become commonplace ideas in Corsica  and various political parties now have policies on this that are essentially the same as ours. I believe 75% of Corsicans want a radical change to the constitution now.”

Dr Simeoni said if the nationalist group only won a relative majority of 35% at the second election round, this was directly due to the fact that other main party groups, on the left and centre, had taken on board some of their ideas. And they are not opposed to that, he said, because it is best for change to come through a consensus.

Asked about the relationship between the autonomists and independentists, he said the clandestine independentist movement, notably in its armed militant form FNLC, had been an “inevitable reaction” to “oppression” and the failure of the state to have dialogue. “It used violence, essentially to get itself heard; even if there have since been legal faces of it such as Corsica Libera [party of now Assembly President Jean-Guy Talamoni].” Over recent years there have been efforts between the various factions to come closer, he said, with one key point being the renunciation by FLNC last year.

Dr Edmond Simeoni

He estimated that the nationalists in the assembly are now about 70% autonomists, having merged their list with the nationalists, who are the other 30%. However in the next few years Corsica will not be calling for full independence, he said.

“We’re not going to be sending two groups to Paris, one asking for independence and one for autonomy.” This showed how far the independentists had come from the days of violent protest, he added.

Dr Simeoni said that ‘nationalist’ in their sense simply means they are patriots, attached to the identity of the Corsican people, but they are not ‘nationalist’ in the ‘authoritarian’ sense.

“We believe in values of solidarity and fraternity, whatever someone’s colour or religion might be,” he said. Incidents of racial tension in the capital Ajaccio over the Christmas break [youths assaulted police and firefighters, which was then followed by reprisals such as a Muslim prayer room being vandalised], were not typical of Corsica, which was on the whole a good model of integration of immigrants. He said this was due to the welcoming character of the Corsicans and the strong local identity, which newcomers join in with.

In fact Dr Simeoni said an influx of North Africans in the last century benefitted Corsica because in 1950 it was underpopulated, poor and underdeveloped – “France had abandoned it and siphoned off its working population, armed forces, civil servants, professionals, for the mainland or the colonies.” Following the Algerian war, the population grew by about a third due to immigrants, he said, and there were few racist incidents because they found work and integrated. More recently he said there had been some escalations of tension linked to fears of extremism and migration, but no more than in other parts of France.

Dr Simeoni said the demands of the nationalists will need constitutional change – and most of the Corsican assembly councillors are now in favour of this. They include matters like: Corsican being an official language alongside French; the ability to control taxation, and enshrining a status that gives real executive and – in certain defined areas – legislative power (eg. not over truly national or European matters like defence or currency).

“If the status of Corsica is in the constitution, it won’t be a half-baked status anymore – we want the specificity of the Corsican people to be recognised,” Dr Simeoni said. The election victory now gives this a new impetus. “We’re asking Mr Valls and Mr Hollande to draw the lessons from it and get under way a process of dialogue on a new basis, around a table like civilised people; and we think that this time we will succeed.”

He said the Corsican nationalists have built links over the years with regionalists from other parts of Europe, including forming the European Free Alliance in 1981 [a grouping which is influential in the European Parliament] which includes the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru as well as, for example, Basques, Occitans, Alsatians, Bretons, Catalans and Savoyards. “We’re in solidarity with Scotland and Catalonia, who are on the right side of history. We’ve a lot in common, though our situations aren’t quite the same. Scotland has already had devolution and has advanced much more than us.”

Dr Simeoni said Corsica has the talent and resources to make a success of full independence – which would mean doing without central government grants – and he does not rule it out one day if opinion moves in that direction.

Already thanks to the election win, many projects which had been struggling are off the back burner, he said. How­ever he thinks there is no point talking of it now because even autonomy would be a “real revolution”.

He said: “The proof is we’ve fought for 50 years without obtaining it. Because the state doesn’t want to hear the words autonomy or independence mentioned. I believe that even the status of autonomy means that a referendum should be held. That way we can be clear that it’s what the Corsicans want and there’s nothing underhand.”

The Corsicans will do everything to avoid this process turning towards militancy rather than negotiation, he said. “However if tomorrow the survival of the Corsican people is refused by the powers that be against the wishes of the Corsicans, we will defend our interests – without violence – by calling on international solidarity.”

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