8 February 2018

Corsica is a test of the French Republic’s authority

By Tom Wheeldon

On 6 February 1998, Claude Éringac – the French government’s top representative in Corsica – was on his way to a classical music concert in the island’s capital, Ajaccio, when he was shot dead by pro-independence militants in the most sensational killing in four decades of sporadic nationalist violence. Exactly two decades later, France’s President Emmanuel Macron paid tribute to Éringac at the start of a two-day visit to the island.

But it wasn’t the most auspicious time for the self-declared “Jupiterian” President to go to Corsica. Three days before he arrived, Ajaccio saw its biggest protests in years, with nationalists thronging the streets chanting, in Corsican, “Killer French state” and “long live the independence movement”. Even more worryingly for Macron, the two-party nationalist bloc  Pè a Corsica (For Corsica) won a landslide victory in December’s elections, taking two-thirds of the seats on the island’s regional council.

Pè a Corsica is a lot more moderate than its supporters’ chants. Its brand of nationalism favours greater autonomy for the island, not outright independence. In a speech on Wednesday, the centrepiece of Macron’s visit, he announced that he was open to giving Corsica a mention in France’s constitution – a tokenistic gesture that will hardly satiate the desire for greater devolution of powers from the highly centralised French state. Other than that, Macron just said “non” to Corsican nationalists’ relatively modest demands and – his signature move – used beautiful rhetorical French to say absolutely nothing.

Whereas Catalan nationalist parties’ key demand is that Spain allows the region to tear itself asunder – taking a fifth of the country’s economy with it –  Pè a Corsica’s flagship request is for the Corsican language to be given official status. With the language classified as “definitely endangered” by UNESCO, such recognition is a matter of pride for the island.  Pè a Corsica’s only really radical demand is for nationalist militants imprisoned in mainland France to be recognised as “political prisoners” and repatriated to the island – again, a matter of pride.

For many Corsicans, the issue of pride is entwined with hard economic reality. A considerable 36 per cent of the island’s real estate is comprised of second homes, many of them owned by mainland French, leading to steep price rises that have pushed many locals, especially young people, out of the housing market.

Pè a Corsica’s proposed solution is to allow only people who have lived on the island for at least five years to buy property there. That is admittedly a rather dirigiste – some would say cack-handed – policy. But instead of giving the regional council the power to carry it out and having his La République En Marche party fight against it in Corsican elections – or even proffering a more nuanced solution of his own – Macron merely scorned the idea that large-scale second home purchases have any negative effect on locals.

Steep property prices aren’t Corsica’s only economic problem. It depends on tourism for one third of its output, but one-size-fits-all regulations from Paris can make it harder to earn a living in the sector. For instance, Marie-Antoinette Maupertuis, a member of the Corsican regional council, told France 24: “On the 30th September beach restaurants have to close, because it’s the law in general, for the whole of the country, which is a paradox, because this is still a really busy time in Corsica, right up until the end of November.”

But even allowing tourism-dependent Corsica to give itself an exemption from some national holidays is anathema to France’s republican ideology. The French state is seen as not merely the entity that runs the country, it is also “the Republic” – the embodiment of the highest Enlightenment ideals, liberté, égalité and fraternité, with égalité understood as a universalising principle that bulldozes over the requirements of specific groups. Whenever a French luminary dies, other French luminaries queue up to declare that the deceased was the “incarnation of the values of the French Republic”. This is seen as the highest possible compliment. (Needless to say, describing a late British ‘National Treasure’ as “the incarnation of the values of the British Crown” would come across as decidedly odd.)

Indeed, it is telling that Macron dismissed Corsican nationalist demands with references to the “Republic”. For instance: “if this specificity” of Corsican identity “is to be the Republic’s enemy, it’s an error and I cannot accept it.” For sure, the notion of the French “Republic” as an ideal can be an inspiringly positive one. When the then French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin’s soaring rhetoric inveighed against the impending Iraq War at the UN in 2003, he was appealing to the ideals of the “Republic”. When the elderly, frail François Mitterand braved constant artillery under fire in besieged Sarajevo in 1992, bringing much-needed humanitarian aid along with him, he was appealing to the ideals of the “Republic” he represented. The problem is that when, for example, during his 2016 failed comeback, Nicholas Sarkozy inveighed against halal and kosher school lunches by saying “if a little guy’s family does not eat pork and the menu at the canteen is a slice of ham and chips, well, he skips the ham and eats a double helping of chips”, he was also appealing to the ideals of the “Republic”.

For now, the French Republic is safe from separatism. Only a minority of Corsicans favour outright independence. However, the contrasting examples of Scotland and Catalonia – not to mention common sense – show that combating regional nationalism through the ballot box, recognition of specific identity, and devolution of extra powers is effective. An intransigent approach of just saying “no” turns supporters of greater autonomy into ardent separatists. When Spain’s Constitutional Tribune blocked further devolution of powers to Catalonia’s parliament in 2010, it transformed Catalan nationalism from a marginal concern into the region’s dominant political force.

The sacrosanct authority of the constitution or Republican values or whatever is no match for pragmatism as a basis for policymaking on sensitive issues. The basis for Sarkozy’s school lunch policy was that “in a Republic, it’s the same rule and the same menu for everyone”. Sadly, the basis for Macron’s Corsica policy is much the same.

Tom Wheeldon works for Radio France Internationale in Paris.