Corsica: Youth-led revolt forces France to offer ‘autonomy’

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By Dick Nichols

April 4, 2022 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — In Europe, there are four nations without a state where parties expressing the popular aspiration to nationhood enjoy seat majorities in regional legislatures: in the Spanish Basque Country (Euskadi), Scotland, Catalonia, and Corsica.

In the most recent regional elections the total vote for formations seeking independence or greater powers from their ruling states (respectively France, Spain and the United Kingdom) was as follows: Corsica (2021) 68%; Euskadi (2020) 66.9%; Catalonia (2021) 50.8%; Scotland (2021) 47.7%.

However, despite Corsican autonomist and pro-independence forces having the highest vote of all four, Corsica comes last in the degree of autonomy it has wrung from the French state. Highly centralised partially as the result of the Jacobin phase of the 1789 French Revolution, but most of all due to the rule—ironically—of Corsica-born self-crowned emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, the French state up until 1982 administered Corsica like any other part of the country, as one or at times two of France’s hundred or so départments.

Unlike the other three jurisdictions, Corsica—officially termed the “Territorial Collectivity of Corsica” since 1991— has no legislative powers or powers of taxation and is responsible for fewer public services than the Basque, Scottish and Catalan administrations.

Moreover, despite the aspiration that the vote in Corsica represents greater autonomy at the very least, the central French government under President Emmanuel Macron has so far refused any reform that would give the term “autonomy” any real content, ignoring the pressure of Corsican regional administrations.

The most eloquent recent evidence of French state reluctance to admit national difference came in a May 2021 decision of its Constitutional Council which, in response to an appeal from education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer, declared unconstitutional a law on protecting France’s regional languages.  Adopted by an overwhelming majority of the French National Assembly (including many of Macron’s own MPs) the law would have provided official protection for education conducted in Basque, Breton, Occitan, Catalan, Alsatian, and other non-French languages. The Council’s sentence also found that the use of accents and diacritical marks not found in French was “unconstitutional”!

There was nothing new in that. As far back as 1991, the Constitutional Council had ruled that the term “Corsican people” could not appear in any French statute—the ancient Mediterranean people with their own language, history and culture could not appear in the law books even as “the Corsican people, part of the French people”.

François Bayrou, French education minister between 1993 and 1997 for the social-liberal Democratic Movement (Modem), commented in the May 24, 2021 edition of L’Express on this latest decision of the Council. A native speaker of the Béarnais variant of Gascon Occitan, Bayrou said:

I don’t know if the Constitutional Council has realised the consequences of the decision it has adopted on such a red-hot topic, which is felt passionately—and I mean passionately—by a lot of French people. Striking out with a stroke of the pen decades of effort to transmit these languages, which belong to France’s linguistic heritage, is inconsistent, unprecedented and dangerous […] It calls into question the existence of the immersion schools, in which the regional language supports the life of the school and the majority of the subjects taught […] The method consists not in making these languages a school subject but in teaching in these languages, whether it be mathematics, sciences or history, obviously with incomparable effectiveness.

Tensions within the calm

How “dangerous” the French-centralist attitude expressed by the Council’s sentence could be in Corsica’s case was to be revealed only ten months later, even though in the run-up to April 10 French presidential election’s first round all had seemed calm on the once troublesome island.

The latest period of stability began in 2014, when the pro-independence military-terrorist National Liberation Front of Corsica (FNLC) announced an indefinite ceasefire, following the example of Basque Homeland and Freedom (ETA) in the Spanish and French Basque regions. The FNLC was responsible between 1976 and 2014 for 4500 acts of violence and the assassinations of French police and functionaries, including chief administrator (prefect) Claude Erignac, in 1998.

As in the Basque Country, the upshot of the FNLC’s truce was electoral success for nationalist forces in the 2015 Assembly of Corsica poll. This win was repeated in 2017, when the For Corsica coalition won 41 seats in the newly constituted 63-seat assembly.

 In the 2021 election, nationalist forces of all tendencies once again reproduced this result, winning 68% of the vote in the second round. The autonomist Fà populu inseme (Making a people together) won 40.64%, its critical autonomist rival Avanzemu pè a Corsica (Let’s advance for Corsica) won 15.07%, while the pro-independence Core in fronte (Heart in front) won 12.26%. A notable feature of the poll was the participation rate: 58.91% in Corsica as against the average of 34.3% in France as a whole.

In the context of the emergence of this nationalist majority, Emmanuel Macron made noises in the 2017 French presidential election campaign about granting extra competencies to France’s regional administrations, including Corsica’s. After his election, on July 3, 2017, he announced what he called a “Girondist accord” [that is, supposedly anti-centralist, anti-Jacobin] of apparent co-governance between the centre, the regions, the “territorial collectivities”, and local government. The core of the “accord” was the idea, in Macron’s words to delegates to a founding national conference of the territories, that “your problems are mine, but my problems are also a bit yours”. All levels of government, working together, would resolve the problems of every level.

Yet once elected Macron effectively forgot about Corsica, not revisiting it until the 20th anniversary of Erignac’s 1998 murder.  In a speech on the occasion Macron rejected any proposal that would give the regional Assembly of Corsica genuine autonomy—legislative powers separate from those of the French National Assembly—or recognition of Corsican as co-official language with French. Macron lectured Corsica’s leaders: 

I wouldn’t encourage you to think that the heart of the battle—the mother of all battles—is to go and negotiate new institutional arrangements before even having carried out the responsibilities you already have.

In late 2021, Wanda Mastor, law professor at Toulouse Capitole university, analysed the France-Corsica deadlock in her Report on Corsica’s Institutional Evolution, which was commissioned by Corsican premier Gilles Simeoni to provide a road map towards an autonomous status for the island. Mastor wrote:

This Jacobin vision [of the Constitutional Council] imposes a straitjacket that not only doesn’t respect the verdict of the ballot box but is also in contradiction with the evolution of legislation. A given statute [such as the 1991 recognition of Corsica as a “specific territorial collectivity”] does not represent specific powers. The various laws regarding Corsica have provided it with a unique architecture, with its own undeniable political atmosphere, as confirmed by the strong participation rate in the last regional elections. But this political strength goes with great juridical weakness. Following the example of all the metropolitan territorial collectives [in contrast with France’s overseas possessions], Corsica has no regulatory powers of its own. Nonetheless, both our Constitution and experience of comparative law allied with Corsica's status as an island provide proof that giving it this power is not only possible, but in line with its specific statute. A regulatory power that should grow into power to legislate [is possible and desirable].

For Macron’s term as president the Corsica-France relation had thus been stalled, leading to rising frustration within the Corsican administration and to calls from FNLC splinters for a return to armed action and even to a few minor bombings.

Yves Colonna murder

This tense status quo unexpectedly exploded on the evening of March 2, when protests broke out in the island’s main cities over a deadly assault that had taken place earlier in the day on Corsican nationalist identity Yvan Colonna. Colonna, who had been held in Arles high security prison for 18 years, was attacked by a fellow inmate serving a sentence for a terrorist offence, lapsed into a coma from which he never emerged, and died on March 21.

The 61-year-old Colonna had been sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of prefect Erignac, a charge he always denied. He had lived in disguise as a shepherd for five years before his capture in 2003. His claim that he did not receive a fair trial was turned down by the European Court of Human Rights in 2016, while once his imprisonment began his family kept calling for his transfer from Arles to a jail in Corsica.

Corsican premier Simeoni, formerly Colonna’s lawyer, said after the assault that “an individual who was manifestly very dangerous was deliberately left in direct contact with Yvan Colonna”, adding that “the prison administration and the government at the very highest level of the State knew there was a specific risk.”

The protests on March 2, held outside the prefectures of Ajaccio and Bastia, came in response to a call by independence parties, prisoners’ support associations, and student unions. From then on, they rapidly escalated. On March 3, students blockaded the University of Corsica and called a mass assembly for the afternoon to which all nationalist forces and organisations were invited so as “to chart the way forward for mobilisation”. At the meeting, the parliamentary leaders of Corsican nationalism (including Simeoni) were questioned as to what they would do in response to an assault that had replaced the Russian invasion of Ukraine as the main topic of conversation across the island.

One student at the assembly, cited in the March 4 edition of the French daily Líberation, said: “For us, the attack on Yvan Colonna is the biggest event we’ve ever known, it touches the Corsican people: we have elected representatives, but our demands are not being listened to by the [French] government.” The assembly adopted three demands: truth and justice about Colonna’s murder, freedom for Corsican political prisoners or their transfer to the island from the mainland, and recognition of the Corsican right to self-determination. 

On March 4, waterside workers in the capital Ajaccio prevented a ferry from the mainland from docking, on the suspicion that it carried reinforcements of French forces of order, specifically the hated Republican Security Brigades (CRS). On the islands’ walls the initials FF—standing for Francesi fora (French out)—reappeared like mushrooms after rain. 

The week ending March 6 saw violent clashes between demonstrators and the CRS in Ajaccio, Bastia, the seaside capital of Upper Corsica, and inland Corte, onetime capital of the independent Corsican Republic (1755-1769). It culminated in a March 6 march in Corte, with 10,000 chanting “Statu francesu assassinu” (“French state, murderous state”).

From March 7 onwards, nearly all high schools on the island were blockaded, with the students holding daily demonstrations in town centres. The Ajaccio courthouse and a tax office were partially burnt after groups attacked them with Molotov cocktails.

Students lead revolt

The main feature of the protests was their youth, with university and high-school students leading the mobilisations. Their anger was overwhelmingly directed against the French government, held responsible for Colonna’s murder, whether through neglect or complicity. However, many regarded Corsica’s own politicians, led by Simeoni and regional assembly speaker Marie-Antoinette Maupertuis, as weak in fighting for Corsican demands. In contrast, Colonna was seen as a heroic martyr for the people’s rights.

One common reaction that typified the scepticism of some younger Corsicans was their disgust at the island’s political leaders’ “humiliation” in allowing themselves to be frisked by French presidential security before Macron’s 2018 speech. More broadly, in the words of André Fazi, political scientist at the University of Corsica, “the young people are outraged by the inability of the [French] government to really negotiate around the demands of the nationalists, who are presently in government with a degree of backing unprecedented in Europe.”

Why was 15-year-old Stella demonstrating? “I’m here because I know a bit about the history of Yvan Colonna from my mother and because this concerns us, the Corsicans. It’s also a way of saying we have our own language, our culture, our land, that we exist.” An older nationalist activist told Líberation: “I’ve never seen a mobilisation of this breadth, with this rhythm and intensity, with so many people—and  so young—out on the streets.”

After a further week of protests and violence, the March 13 demonstration in Bastia exceeded that of Corte (with 13,000 present according to organisers). It ended in violent clashes between the police and demonstrators, with 102 injured (of whom 77 were police). A spokesperson for the Unité-SG-FO police union claimed that its members were dealing with a “quasi-insurrectional” situation.

On the same day, an Ifop poll in Corse Matin showed that 53% of those questioned across France favoured increased autonomy for Corsica, while even 35% would accept the island becoming independent, the highest figure yet registered in polling on the issue.

The French state reacts

By then, it was clear that the French government of prime minister Jean Castex could not just wait for the storm to pass.  On March 16, attorney general Gérald Darmanin arrived on Corsica to announce that regarding the island’s status “we are prepared to go as far as autonomy”—so long as the violence ended. However, what “autonomy” would mean—what new powers Corsica might really gain in an amended statute—would have to be discussed after the presidential election.

Castex had previously announced that there would be a special inquiry into the assault on Colonna and that the two other Corsicans in jail for Erignac’s murder would have their prisoner classification changed to allow them to be transferred to the island.

For its part, the FNLC, which unlike ETA has not dissolved, issued a statement that seemed to threaten a return to action: “Indifference generates anger and anger entails revolt. And, with us, revolt produces insurrection.”

The Corsican revolt now became a theme in the presidential election campaign, especially after Corsican authorities resolved on Colonna’s death that “so as to express the collective sadness felt by our people after the tragic death of Yvan Colonna, and given the dark times Corsica is experiencing, the flags of the Collectivity will be flown at half-mast from today.”

For Macron, “that’s a mistake, it’s inappropriate”; for Greens (EELV) candidate Yannick Jadot “one can understand the emotion but regret the decision”; while Anne Hidalgo, Paris mayor and Socialist Party (PS) candidate, told TV channel France 2: “That shocks me. Of course, the circumstances of the death of Yvan Colonna are unacceptable, but a prefect of the Republic was murdered.”

Former French prime minister and frenetic anti-nationalist Manuel Valls, for whom “the Corsican people does not exist” and who had returned to France after a silly season as a Barcelona councillor crusading against Catalan nationalism, led the outrage:

One thing is to respect the pain and grief of the Colonna family, quite another is to covert a man, condemned for the murder of a prefect of the Republic, into a hero and martyr. It’s intolerable. I imagine that the State on the ground [i.e. in Corsica] will react.

However, the state “on the ground” thought better of following Valls’ incendiary advice. The prefecture in Ajaccio closed its doors for the day of public mourning for Colonna’s passing.

Autonomy or what?

As for the proposal that the French government would entertain some form of autonomy for Corsica, most of the candidates of the right were horrified. Sébastian Chenu, MP for Marine Le Pen’s National Convergence (RN), said: “To move from the murder of a prefect to the promise of autonomy—can there be a more catastrophic message? I reject Emmanuel Macron’s cynical clientelism breaking up the integrity of French territory.”

From Islamophobe ultra-rightist Eric Zammour, for whom Macron’s promise was a “base electoral manoeuvre”, the issue generated this gobbledegook when he was interviewed on TV channel France 2:

For autonomy that’s heading towards independence in English, Scottish, Irish, or Catalan fashion, no way!  […] Corsica is neither a départment nor a region but the two things together. This Collectivity has competences, they should be adjusted. […] On the language, French is the language of the French Republic, but the question that’s raised in Corsica is a question of identity. Corsica wants to defend Corsican identity and they are right, but the Corsicans love France when France is great.”

By contrast, leading left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who used to reject the idea of Corsican autonomy, now supported it given the clear nationalist majority in the Corsican assembly. In fact, Mélenchon supports a statute going further than autonomy as commonly understood: “I think Article 74 of the Constitution which already applies to French Polynesia should be applied to Corsica, if it is asked for.” 

Article 74 allows for the creation of local assemblies with legislative powers in all areas of government, apart from nationality, civil rights, the law, foreign policy, defence and public order, currency, and electoral law.

However, for French Communist Party candidate Fabien Roussel, autonomy should be rejected because “it’s not going to fill Corsican fridges.” […] We need to know what’s behind this word ‘autonomy’. If it means ‘creation of a state with its own income, its own taxes and whatever’, I’m not at all convinced that this is the solution for the Corsicans.”

Both Jadot (EELV) and Hidalgo (PS) supported Corsica having legislative autonomy. 

However, all these positions supportive of autonomy evaded, to one degree or another, the primary question: whether the Corsicans have a right to self-determination, namely whether it is up to them and no-one else to decide what relation they wish to have with France. New Anticapitalist Party candidate Philipe Poutou believes the Corsicans have this right and identified with the protests in Corsica: “For us, this is an example to follow. When you go berserk, the government gets the shakes, and those in power realise they’ve gone too far.”

On Corsica, the young people driving the protest have drawn the same conclusion: “We’ve accomplished more in the nights of three weeks than the autonomists and independentists in five years of regional government”, said Philippe, a member of Ghjuventù Libera (Free Youth).

Colonna’s funeral took place in his hometown of Cargèse on March 25. Thousands attended in absolute silence, while his coffin, surrounded by Corsican flags with some Breton, Catalan and Basque flags present in solidarity, was carried into the local church.

It was one more important moment in Corsica’s history as a nation that, in the popular saying, has “often been conquered but never subdued”.

Fought over and ruled at times by Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Etruscans, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Lombards, Franks, Saracens, the Papacy, Tuscany, Aragon, Pisa, Genoa, France, Mussolini’s Italy and Nazi Germany, national consciousness in Corsica is stronger than ever. 

The struggle to exercise its democratic right to self-determination will pose an increasing challenge to the French state and the European Union as “club of states”.

Dick Nichols is European correspondent of Green Left and Links. An initial version of this article has appeared on the Green Left web site.