BASTIA, CORSICA - French President Emmanuel Macron stood firm in the face of growing nationalist demands in Corsica Wednesday, rejecting calls for increasing autonomy in the once-restive Mediterranean island.
Wrapping up his first visit there since Corsican nationalists swept elections in December, Macron projected the image of a strong unified France and said "non" to demands to recognize Corsican as a second official language. He also ruled out the creation of the status of "Corsican resident."
"There is one official language — it's French," he said in a speech in Corsica's second town of Bastia. His address received scant applause.
The language recognition was one of the key wishes of nationalist leaders such as Gilles Simeoni and Jean-Guy Talamoni who reportedly boycotted a Wednesday lunch with Macron.
Unlike many in the nearby Spanish region of Catalonia, the French island's leaders aren't seeking full independence — but some believe it's only a matter of time before they do.
On Tuesday, Macron also refused to release Corsican prisoners held in mainland prisons, two days after thousands of nationalists demonstrated Sunday ahead of the president's visit.
But Macron did give the nationalist leaders an olive-branch Wednesday by saying he was open to adding a specific mention of Corsica in the French Constitution.
Some moves have already been taken to increase independence, including the creation in January of a new regional assembly that Macron called "the most decentralized in mainland France."
"I'm for that everyone in the republic can express their identity," he said.
Macron also used his speech to lavish praise on the natural beauty of the island, saying it must be cherished and protected. The land the French refer to as the "Island of Beauty" is rich in history and famed as Napoleon's birthplace.
Macron pledged to bolster police and security for the 320,000 residents in the territory, which has long had problems with drugs and gang crime — including mafia involvement.
A campaign of separatist violence began in the mid-1970s but nationalists have since laid down weapons to focus on political means.
The new strategy paid dividends. In December, the coalition of moderate and harder-line nationalists won 56.5 percent of the vote in regional elections, while candidates from Macron's Republic on the Move! party won just six seats.
Adamson reported from Paris.