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Catalonia's Example Looms as Corsicans Prepare to Vote

Corsica executive council head Gilles Simeoni answers reporters' questions after a meeting with France's then-prime minister, Manuel Valls, at the Hotel Matignon, in Paris, Jan. 18, 2016.

Voters on the French Mediterranean island of Corsica head to the polls Sunday for the first round of territorial elections, with a nationalist ticket projected to score big.

The campaign might not have attracted much attention but for the Spanish region of Catalonia, where independence aspirations have grabbed world headlines and turned attention to other autonomy-minded regions.

Candidates from seven political lists will be on Sunday's ballot. But the main nationalist ticket, Pe a Corsica (For Corsica), is surging.

The elections aim to fuse Corsica's two administrative territories into one, but they're about much more than bureaucracy. They're expected to solidify the power of Corsica executive council head Gilles Simeoni and other nationalists, who won elections in 2015 for the first time, refueling centuries-old independence dreams — at least for some Corsicans. Catalonia's example has given them another reason to hope.

The big question, said University of Bordeaux Corsica expert Thierry Dominici, is not whether the nationalists will win, but by how much.

Dominici said Pe a Corsica supporters hope to win the majority of votes during Sunday's first round, making a second-round runoff unnecessary. They could then compare themselves to Catalonia and demand more autonomy from France, or even at some point a referendum on full independence.

Dominici and many other experts think such dreams are unrealistic. Besides sharing strong cultural identities, including languages, rich and teeming Catalonia and relatively poor and sparsely populated Corsica have little in common.

French subsidies

"Corsica receives a lot of subsidies from the French government, and Corsica is a special situation concerning taxes," said political analyst Philippe Moreau Defarges. "And many Corsicans don't want to lose that."

He also noted that Corsica's main economic lifeline, tourism, is highly dependent on mainland France.

Sunday's elections do underscore a major shift in Corsican politics. A decades-long armed independence struggle formally ended in 2014, although it lost credibility much earlier. A year later, a mix of pro-independence politicians — opposed to armed violence — and more moderate autonomists won regional elections, toppling the island's traditional clannish power structure.

So far, Dominici said, the nationalists have gotten good reviews. He described council head Simeoni, a moderate nationalist, as a local variation of French President Emmanuel Macron, who exploded traditional French party politics with his own election this year.

Macron and his government have been strikingly silent about the Corsica vote and nationalist demands for more autonomy over such matters as taxes and education. Moreau Defarges said Paris wants to lie low — for now.

France wants "to preserve French unity, the territorial integrity of France," he said.

But if Pe a Corsica scores a major victory in the polls, the Macron government will be pressured to respond.