French Interior Minister open to autonomy of Corsica

French Interior Minister said he is open to the autonomy to Corsica as the assault of a nationalist convict spurred violent protests. For the first time French officials may consider the autonomy of Corsica, only few weeks before the next presidential elections.

The Parata Tower in Corsica
The Parata Tower in Corsica. The island is a popular tourist destination but its economy suffers from the lack of diversified industry | © Kevin and Laurianne Langlais

The French Minister Gérald Darmanin visits Corsica, the Mediterranean island north of Sardinia, on March 16 and 17. The area is in the middle of violent protests as a reaction to the assault of Yvan Colonna by an inmate earlier this month.

On March 2, Yvan Colonna, 61, was strangled by an inmate while left alone with him in the prison’s gym. He is still in a coma two weeks later (Update March 22: Yvan Colonna died on Monday). Yvan Colonna, a nationalist Corsican, was convicted to life imprisonment for the assassination of Prefect Claude Erignac, the highest state representative in the region, in 1998. Arrested in 2003 after five years on the run, he always claimed his innocence.

Detained under strict conditions, his behavior in prison didn’t bring complaints while his assaulter was known to be violent. The emotion generated by the aggression of the Corsican nationalist led a few thousand Corsicans on the streets to denounce the responsibility of France.

Police have been struggling to contain a few but extremely motivated demonstrators and at least 44 officers have been injured over the last 10 days. Some throw Molotov cocktails and have partially burnt public buildings, in an atmosphere that may lead to insurrection.

Police also lack support and material supply. Nationalists blocked the port of the largest city Ajaccio on March 2 to avoid a few police officers from the mainland to help restore calm, forcing authorities to bring them by plane now.

The Interior Minister declared on Wednesday in a local newspaper that he was ready to consider the autonomy of Corsica if violence stopped. “We are ready to go until autonomy,” he told Corse Matin. But “there cannot be dialogue with violence,” he added.

The National Liberation Front of Corsican founded in 1976 which ceased its armed struggle since 2014 threatened in a communique ahead of the minister’s visit to reactivate its fight because of the “despising denial” of the French state regarding Corsican aspirations. It made similar threats last September.

Corsica has the highest homicide rate in France’s metropolitan area with 3.4 homicides for 100,000 people a year, three times as much as most regions, according to 2018 data from the Interior Ministry.

The island has been prone to nationalist criminal attacks for decades but claims became more politically structured in recent years.

The autonomy of Corsica, or even its independence, has been a recurrent debate about the island. Corsica is under French administration since 1769, few weeks before Napoléon Bonaparte’s birth in Ajaccio. It has local but limited administrative specificity.

In 2014, a nationalist politician was elected mayor of Bastia, the second-largest city of Corsica. The island’s administration merged into a single territorial collectivity in 2017, providing local administrative authority and more operational autonomy even though it doesn’t allow Corsica to pass its own laws or to substitute French national state authority. During the elections, autonomist and separatist parties won an outright majority of seats in the Corsican assembly.

The island is a destination praised by tourists, making it the main economic activity. But locals struggle to find affordable accommodation with a real estate demand for secondary homes inflating prices. With few jobs outside public offices and tourism, Corsica is poorer than the French average while the cost of living is high.

This first official consideration for the island’s new status is done after violent protests which may recall the period when President Emmanuel Macron granted concessions to the yellow vest protests after violent demonstrations.

But the minister’s declarations come all the more in the spotlight given the national electoral context. France is going to vote in the Presidential elections this April, in which French President Emmanuel Macron leads opinion polls in his bid for a second 5-year term.

Discussions about an autonomous status would take years. The notion of autonomy may take many forms from a legislative, judiciary to a fiscal standpoint. Discussions would need to continue during a second mandate. The move may resonate as electorally-motivated while Corsican claims didn’t really resonate during Macron’s first mandate.

It however brings the situation of Corsica back into the political debate. Several presidential candidates are in favor of more local flexibility. The far-right populist candidate Marine Le Pen, who lost in 2017 against Macron and may come second according to opinion polls this year, opposes the autonomy of Corsica.

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Homicides, Ministère de l'intérieur, 2018, Free access, PDF

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