Can Europe Make It?

After the Scottish referendum: Corsican contagion?

In the wake of the Scottish vote, Corsicans are trying to gain publicity for their own, often neglected, struggle for self-determination. Could we soon see an independence referendum on this small, Mediterranean island?

Farimah Daftary
7 October 2014
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Nationalist graffiti in Corsica. Flickr/Ari Brose. Some rights reserved.

On the day of the Scottish referendum of 18 September 2014, a group of Corsican nationalists travelled to Edinburgh as part of a delegation of the Brussels-based European Free Alliance (EFA), along with representatives of 27 other nationalist, regionalist and autonomist parties to support fellow member SNP and the ‘yes’ camp. Headed by the President of the EFA François Alfonsi, a pro-autonomy Corsican politician and former MEP (2009-2014), the seven Corsican members were pro-autonomy members of the largest nationalist party in the regional Corsican Assembly Femu a Corsica (‘Let’s Make Corsica’). Five separatists travelled separately – a reminder of the strong internal divisions within the Corsican nationalist scene.

Their presence was an indicator of efforts to draw attention to a conflict which has traditionally been considered a special case and a purely internal matter for the French government, and to capitalise on the momentum generated by the Scottish and Catalan debates, despite the significant differences between them.

The Corsican Question

Lacking a kin state to advocate on its behalf, and having been incorporated by the French state in 1768 following a brief period of independence, Corsica has struggled within this rigid unitary and centralised framework to gain recognition of its specific identity, language and history and to obtain a degree of internal self-determination.

While Scotland can boast significant natural resources and draw on its history of sovereignty, independence hardly seems a viable option for this small Mediterranean island largely dependent on subsidies. With a population of about 322,000 and the lowest population density of all metropolitan French regions, Corsica is dependent on migration flows to counter its low fertility rate and seasonal workers to fill jobs in the service sector (mainly tourism – which accounts for one third of Corsica’s GDP, making it particularly vulnerable to terrorism).

Only about 10-15% of Corsicans (consisting of a majority of the titular nation, about 20% of mainland French and slightly under 10% of foreigners) support independence. According to a 2012 poll, 12% overall and only 42% of those who voted for the separatist electoral list in the 2010 regional elections were in favor of independence. Support for independence hit a low of 6% following the murder of the Prefect of Corsica in February 1998. In contrast, support for independence is as high as 30% in France as a whole. On the other hand, 51% favoured expanded autonomy, of which two thirds wanted ‘slightly more’ rather than ‘much more’ autonomy.

Corsica’s specific economic and social problems and challenges are strongly linked to insularity. In Corsica itself, these problems and political violence are seen as a consequence of failed state policies. The modern phase of the conflict dates to the mid-1960s when, following a post-war period of economic, demographic and cultural decline, a number of environmental and autonomist groups were formed. The failure of regionalist party formation as well as the government’s refusal to identify the roots of the crisis resulted in a radicalization of the movement. The founding of the Corsican National Liberation Front (FLNC) in 1976 marked the beginning of a cycle of terrorist violence against the ‘colonial oppressor’ and state repression. The nationalist movement has since been crippled by infighting. 

While the concept of a Corsican people remains controversial, there is a consensus that Corsicans possess distinct characteristics. Territory is the primary reference point for identity. The second vector of identity is the language, Corsu. Although it has no official status and is rapidly declining, it is still believed to be spoken by about 45% of the population.

Local politicians were originally very hostile to the nationalist discourse which attacked the power of the political ‘clans’ who were seen as sharing responsibility for Corsica’s problems. However, elements of this discourse have become part of the mainstream because of their mobilizing potential, namely the protection and promotion of the Corsican language, balanced economic development and the need for institutional reform.

A laboratory for institutional experimentation

Demands for internal self-determination date back to the publication of a document entitled Autonomia in 1974. Protest has yielded certain benefits as Corsica enjoys administrative autonomy and specific institutions, although the existence of a separate Corsican people has never been officially recognized. The fact that it constitutes one of the 22 regions of ‘metropolitan’ rather than ‘overseas’ France has placed severe limitations on the extent of institutional experimentation. Furthermore, each new statute/law (1982; 1991; 2002) has been followed by a wave of decentralization granting similar measures to the other French regions, thereby diluting to an extent the specific nature of the Corsican reforms.

The Corsican Assembly enjoys regulatory competencies but cannot legislate. The ‘Matignon Proposals’ of July 2000 negotiated between representatives of the French government and regional Corsican councillors, including recently-elected separatists, had included an experimental power to adapt national laws. However, the implementation of these political proposals required significant legislative work. While a Corsica law was adopted on 22 January 2002, the process was not completed due to the censure of the French Constitutional Court and the defeat of Prime Minister Jospin in the 2002 presidential elections. A significant transfer of areas of competence was nevertheless accomplished although overlap between the competencies of the Assembly and those of the institutions of state administration associated with the two departments of Upper Corsica and South Corsica remained. Efforts to expand the teaching of the Corsican language at the primary level also faced constitutional obstacles.

An unexpected new wave of decentralisation in March 2003 introduced by newly-elected President Sarkozy allowed for the granting of experimental powers to adapt laws for a limited period and under the supervision of Parliament as well as greater financial autonomy to all French territorial entities.

Mainstream parties continue to dominate both in Corsica and in Paris. The two regional councils of Upper and South Corsica, the Corsican Assembly and the Executive Council are all led by politicians from mainstream French parties. The four deputies and two senators elected to the French Parliament from Corsica have also always belonged to French parties. Corsica is not officially represented in the European parliament but has twice had a MEP representing the south-east of France: Max Simeoni (1989-1994), one of the founding members of the pro-autonomy movement and, more recently, François Alfonsi (2009-2014), who is also a member of a pro-autonomy party and President of the European Free Alliance.

While in the minority, nationalists nevertheless represent an important political force in the Corsican Assembly, currently holding the most seats (15 in total out of 51) since its first election in 1983. The largest nationalist party currently represented is the pro-autonomy Femu a Corsica (11 seats) which obtained over 25% of the votes in the second round of the 2010 regional elections. One of its two leading figures is the young mayor of Bastia, Gilles Simeoni, the son of the founding father of Corsican nationalism Edmond Simeoni, and one of the lawyers representing Yvan Colonna, the convicted murderer of Prefect Erignac. The separatistCorsica Libera (CL), believed to be linked to the Front de Libération Nationale de la Corse – Union des Combattants (FLNC-UC) and whose leader Jean-Guy Talamoni participated in the Matignon Process, has three seats (a fourth CL councillor is now unaffiliated).

Separatists first gained access in 1992 by running together with pro-autonomy parties and were the only nationalists represented in 1998-2004 (8 seats). Pro-autonomy candidates were elected in 2004 through a joint electoral list. The failure to form a pre-electoral coalition in the latest 2010 elections does not bode well for the mobilizing potential of the nationalists and underlines the importance of continuing efforts to enlist partners from the mainstream partners. 

A principal motor for change has been the President of the Executive Council of Corsica, Paul Giacobbi (Parti Radical de Gauche– PRG) and one of Corsica’s four deputies in Paris. He supports the move by the Corsican Assembly on 25 April 2014 to introduce a five-year residency requirement in order to purchase property in Corsica (The original proposal had been to impose a ten year requirement. Special measures had been promised for the Corsican diaspora). 

This controversial proposal (18 voted against) is intended to curtail real estate speculation and to allow locals access to affordable housing (around 40% of residences in Corsica are holiday homes). It must be approved by the French parliament to become law and, according to constitutional experts, this is unlikely as it contravenes the principle of equality of French citizens before the law.

A Corsican referendum on independence?

Reactions to the Scottish referendum have ranged from relief on the part of those who feared a “contagion effect” to disappointment, although Corsican nationalists have been unanimous in praising the democratic consultation of the Scottish people and have emphasized that the mere fact of holding such a historic referendum has set a precedent within the European Union and should be seen as a political victory for the Scottish National Party (SNP). Certain Corsican politicians, both nationalists and mainstream, have pointed to the Scottish case as a warning to Paris to tackle the Corsican Question before it is faced with a similar radicalisation of public opinion. However, one can also argue that the Scottish case illustrates precisely the opposite, since the current degree of devolution and the promise of more contributed to averting secession.

The attention of the international media which Corsica briefly enjoyed, e.g., in the New York Timeshas been in itself of significant psychological significance for this hotspot which is usually not taken seriously domestically.

Given the failure of the Scottish referendum, weak support for independence amongst the Corsican population and the still relative weakness and divisions of Corsican nationalists, a sweeping victory of Corsican separatists in the next regional elections (2015) followed by a referendum on independence, as happened in Scotland, seems inconceivable. Even if they manage to form a pre-electoral coalition with other nationalist groups, they are not likely to obtain more than 30% of votes.

Furthermore, the risk of being excluded from the European Union in the event of independence is likely to exert a significant sobering effect, perhaps even more so than in Scotland, as Corsica is still very much dependent on EU subsidies (about 300 million Euros in 2014–2020) and sees in Europe the driving force for the recognition of its regional and linguistic distinctiveness.

Thus, the focus is on autonomy yet again and Corsicans will no doubt be following ‘devo max’ in Scotland as well as developments in another ‘nation without a state’: Catalonia. Pressure for greater autonomy is likely to build up in the run-up to the 2015 regional and 2017 presidential and parliamentary elections in France although Corsica Libera has been distancing itself from this catch-all concept and is advocating ‘devolution’ instead, while remaining confident that independence will be placed on the political agenda in the more-distant future. They are also calling for popular mobilisation in support of the right to self-determination.

The Corsican Assembly is working on a new set of proposals for institutional reform, to be submitted to the French government in November.

Since the constitutional revisions of 2003, (non-binding) consultations may be held by any region, department or commune. The failure of the Corsican referendum of 6 July 2003 (51% of Corsicans voted against) should be seen not as an outright rejection of autonomy but rather an expression of disappointment by many that it concerned simplification of Corsica’s institutional structure only (the abolishing of the two departments and their associated general councils) rather than a comprehensive plan for increased autonomy.

Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from the Scottish referendum is that the self-determination question was placed at the top of the political agenda in a democratic fashion and without resorting to violence. On 25 June 2014, following in the footsteps of ETA and in recognition of the Corsican Assembly’s residency requirement proposal, the FLNC-UC announced that it was demilitarising. It remains to be seen whether this signals a new, non-violent phase or whether this is, yet again, a short-lived political manoeuvre.

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