The daily flights and ferries carrying tourists and French retirees seem a distant memory, even as a chunk of the diaspora has returned to ancestral villages.
Just 200 kilometers across the Mediterranean, the island of Corsica has never seemed so cut off from mainland France. The coronavirus has restored a sense of identity and separation that independence fighters have long sought.
The pandemic, however, is also fueling more tangible demands. The nationalists running the island’s government want to manage the health crisis “the Corsican way,” which includes piloting a controversial treatment program and deciding on school openings.
“Our strategy needs to be adapted to the reality on the ground,” said Gilles Simeoni, president of the island’s executive council.
Such sentiments are echoed elsewhere in Europe by territories long pushing for greater economic and political power from capitals, said University of Bordeaux political scientist and Corsica expert Thierry Dominici.
COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, is giving them new cause.
“In Corsica, we have the impression the elected leadership wants to move forward” in managing the island’s response to COVID-19, Dominici added. “But the administrative situation imposed by the state has tied their hands.”
With soaring mountains, spectacular beaches and winding country roads—where drivers still slow for crossing sheep—Corsica has long had a rocky relationship with Paris. A long-running and violent independence movement, the FLNC, formally laid down its arms in 2014.
Polls have shown little local appetite for full independence from France, on which the island depends heavily for tourism and subsidies. But a Corsican sense of identity, seen in a resurgence of the local language and traditions, remains powerful.
In 2015, a politically complex stew of nationalists surged to power, which they still hold. When the coronavirus lockdown began in mid-March, a number of Corsicans living in mainland France headed home to spend time with families.
Regional council head Simeoni has called for an “independent scientific” council in Corsica to manage the coronavirus response, and for making the island a “pilot territory” in using malaria drug chloroquine to treat the infection.
Corsican mayors are also joining others in France in opposing government plans to begin reopening schools next week.
Paris has promised regional and local governments greater leeway in managing the crisis. Still, it has nixed Corsica’s chloroquine pitch, allowing the island a more modest option of joining a clinical trial in Bordeaux.
“It’s very insufficient,” said Corsican Assembly leader Jean-Guy Talamoni of Paris’ response. He says “Corsica must have its own method” of dealing with the pandemic.
Critics suggest such declarations are opportunistic—deepening the divisions between the more moderate Simeoni and Talamoni, who has long championed Corsica’s full independence from France.
“Talamoni is using the situation for political ends, which is totally stupid,” said political analyst Jean Petaux of Sciences Po Bordeaux University.
“On the one hand, he wants the island to be independent and fly with its own wings,” Petaux said. “On the other, there’s an unending demand for state support,” including compensation for tourism and other economic losses wrought by the virus.
Pushback elsewhere in Europe
Corsica is hardly alone in pushing for greater local control of the health crisis.
In Spain, Catalonia’s separatist leader, Quim Torra, has bucked Madrid’s plans to extend a state of emergency underpinning its lockdown, and joined the Basque region in opposing “co-goverance” with the state in unwinding confinement.
In Italy, regions run by opposition rightist parties argue Rome’s plans to end confinement are not bold enough. Southern Calabria announced restaurants and bars with outdoor seating could reopen immediately — countering the government’s timeline of June 1.
Scottish nationalists are similarly protesting health orders coming from England.
“The suggestion that Scotland and England must march forth entirely in unison is absurd,” Scottish National Party lawmaker Kenny MacAskill wrote in The Scotsman newspaper, adding many measures to end confinement would likely be replicated in both areas, nonetheless.
In more decentralized Germany, the federal government and local states have agreed on ways to ease the lockdown, although some want restrictions lifted faster.
For his part, Corsica expert Dominici believes COVID-19, following other crises like the environment, will make greater local decision-making inevitable.
“Even if the state doesn’t want to, it will have to give regions more rights to manage the deconfinement,” he added of the pandemic.
Nor should Corsica’s nationalists be underestimated, he said. They are no longer political newbies.
“This is their second term in office,” Dominici said. “That’s not nothing. They’re a political force to be reckoned with.”