Emmanuel Macron has kicked off arguably the toughest trip of his presidency by promising ruling nationalists in Corsica more say over the Mediterranean island’s “future” as long as it remained within “the fold of the French Republic”.
France’s 40-year old centrist president is walking a tightrope that will test even his redoubtable powers of persuasion during the two-day visit, say commentators.
He must assuage fears that granting Corsica too much autonomy could foster a Catalonia-style breakaway bid in the future while seizing what nationalists call an “historic” opportunity to improve relations with the mainland.
Dubbed "the isle of beauty" and famed for producing Napoleon, Corsica has been a thorn in the side of successive French presidents with nationalists waging violent campaigns for greater autonomy or independence for decades.
The low point struck precisely 20 years ago yesterday, when nationalists gunned down Claude Erignac, the state’s top representative on the island in an assassination that shocked the country and drove tens of thousands of Corsicans into the streets.
Paying sombre tribute to the slain state prefect in the presence of his wife and two children, Mr Macron said that the entire island had been “sullied” by the killing for which nationalist Yvan Colonna is serving a life sentence. There could, he said, be "no forgetting and no amnesty".
Corsica was an “unwavering” part ot the French Republic, he intoned.
But he said it must try to to offer Corsica "the future it aspires to, without giving into demands that would take it out of the Republican fold."
While mafia killings are rife on the mountainous island, nationalist-linked violence has subsisided since 2014 when the separatist National Liberation Front of Corsica (FLNC) called a ceasefire.
A coalition of separatists and autonomists then cemented their control of Corsica’s regional assembly in December elections.
While they deny any short-term plans to try take the territory of 330,000 people out of France, there are fears on the mainland that they could seek to go the way of the affluent Spanish region of Catalonia, which mounted a breakaway bid last year.
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“If today we give into their demands, in 10 to 15 years they will consider their right to ask for independence,” warned Manuel Valls, the Spanish-born former French prime minister.
Corsican leaders want a special status for the island in the constitution and greater autonomy, as well as equal status for French and Corsican languages and amnesty for Corsicans “political” prisoners. They are also calling for a special Corsican residency status that would outlaw foreigners from buying property for five years.
On Saturday, thousands of supporters marched to demand "respect for the Corsican people”.
Gilles Simeoni and Jean-Guy Talamoni, the two leaders of the nationalist-separatist alliance Pè a Corsica (For Corsica), said the Mr Macron government rejected their proposals out of hand when they visited Paris last month.
Mr Simeoni, a moderate nationalist who heads the regional government, has warned of a return to violence if Paris persists in ignoring nationalist aspirations.
He described Mr Macron’s visit as "an historic window of opportunity to leave the logic of conflict".
Mr Macron intimated during his presidential campaign that he was prepared to go further than his predecessors in recognising the distinct nature of the island, but remained vague.
He will set out his plans in a highly-anticipated speech in the northern city of Bastia on Wednesday.