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France's Macron Confronts Corsica's Calls for More Autonomy

French president Emmanuel Macron meets residents as he walks to the city hall of Ajaccio, Feb. 6, 2018 in Corsica. Macron made a vibrant plea for the unity of the French Republic as he arrived Tuesday for a two-day visit.

French President Emmanuel Macron travelled to Corsica on Tuesday to confront demands for greater autonomy for the restive Mediterranean island by nationalists buoyed by unprecedented political strength.

Macron paid homage to Claude Erignac, the island’s prefect who was shot dead by separatists in Ajaccio two decades ago, and will later meet nationalist leaders before setting out his vision for Corsica in a speech on Wednesday.

Corsica’s relationship with mainland France has long troubled French presidents. Separatists waged a 40-year militant campaign, blowing up police stations and mansions owned by mainlanders and carrying out assassinations, before laying down arms in 2014.

Since then, the same dissatisfaction with mainstream parties that has spurred secessionist ambitions elsewhere in Europe, such as Catalonia, has bolstered the nationalists' political support. In December, the two-party “Pe a Corsica” (For Corsica) nationalist alliance won nearly two-thirds of seats in the regional assembly.

Its leaders demand a special status for Corsica in the constitution and greater autonomy, as well as equal status for the French and Corsican languages and amnesty for Corsicans jailed for pro-independence violence.

Macron has said he is open to some changes but has ruled out recognising Corsican alongside French, and on Tuesday reiterated his refusal to pardon Corsican militants.

“Corsica, a proud and dignified land, was dirtied by this crime,” Macron, on his first visit to the island, said in reference to the 1998 shooting of Erignac.

“Justice was delivered and will be followed, without complacency, without forgetting, without amnesty.”

Balaclavas politics

Unlike Spain and Germany, France has been reluctant to devolve much power to its regions, despite some decentralization in the 1980s.

Corsica's nationalists are themselves divided over whether their ambition should be enhanced autonomy or independence.

Corsica's tiny 8.6-billion-euro economy is propped up by central government financing and local tax breaks, and lacks the clout of Catalonia, which accounts for a fifth of the Spanish economy, or Scotland, which enjoys substantial devolved authority while remaining within the United Kingdom.

Some parallels might be drawn with Wales where a devolution of powers from London in the late 1990s led to more autonomy over housing, education and health, as well as a recovery in the number of people learning and speaking Welsh. Support for outright independence, however, remains low.

Within the Pe a Corsica alliance, the moderately autonomist Femu a Corsica party holds power in numbers over the committed Separatist Corsica Libera party. Even so, Femu politician Gilles Simeoni, who heads the regional executive, last week told Reuters that Macron risked violence if he did not take talks seriously.

“In the 1980s and 1990s, when the nationalist movement only represented a minority and was violent, governments of the left and right held talks with men in balaclavas,” he said in the interview. “But today, when we represent a majority and say there is no other path than democracy, the government does not want to budge on anything.”