Corsican Nationalists Test French Flexibility

In response to the apparent surge in support for Corsican nationalists, President Macron has made it clear that Corsica will not be allowed to distinguish itself further from the rest of France. However, says Dr Alexendra Remond, support for autonomy may be symptomatic more of disenchantment with the status quo than of growing Corsican nationalism. 
Last December the Corsican nationalists took Paris by surprise by securing 56,5% of votes in the second round of the French territorial elections to elect regional councillors. Earlier last year, they also secured three deputies out of four in the French National Assembly during the Legislative elections. Their success has prompted renewed discussions around the French constitutional design less than two years after the Republic has undergone a considerable territorial reform. Could we expect further changes under the rise of nationalist and autonomist demand in the small Mediterranean island of Corsica?
When Corsica was annexed by France in 1768 it was divided into two départements; an administrative unit which seats between the administrative region and local municipalities (communes). The Island was also made a region headed by the Corsican Assembly which was granted a special status of territorial collectivity in 1991 setting it apart, in name more than competencies, from the regions in the metropole. Since the 1st of January 2018, the two départements were combined along with its status of region into a single administrative unit: Collectivité territoriale unique de Corse (CTU). The creation of a Collectivity of Corsica answers a long-standing demand of local nationalist parties and provides a further, limited, devolution of powers covering transport, education and some economic powers in the distribution of government resources for enterprises, such powers remain subordinate to national law. 
The status of the island has often been in tension between periods of symmetrisation, aligning it with the metropole, and periods of asymmetry, occupying a halfway position between the continental regions and the overseas territories. Granting Corsica, seen as an integral part of the French metropole further special status, however, remains a challenge. Its powers remain limited when compared to other European cases such as Catalonia or Scotland. Yet a proposal by the French government to concede powers to raise and spend taxes was rejected by the Corsican population via referendum in 2003. The success of the Corsican nationalists since 2015, where they secured 24 of the 51 seats in the local authority council indicates that such preferences may be changing among the Corsican electorate. 
The Pè a Corsica (For Corsica) alliance brought together independentist personalities like Mr Talamoni and the popular moderate autonomist Mr Simeoni. This alliance was formed following the end of National Liberation Front of Corsica activities, which for over 40 years carried out assassinations and bombings. The party advocates autonomy over independence and the assertion of Corsica’s distinctiveness. They call for the Corsican language, Corsu, to become a co-official language and encourage its teaching in schools. They also wish to increase the island administrative autonomy notably in fiscal matters and limiting the ability of non-permanent residents to buy property. The implementation of some of these demands would require a change to the French constitution.
This political, moderate expression of Corsican nationalism has proved more appealing to the local electorate and has allowed the movement to become a mainstream political force on the island. We should be careful however in interpreting this success as a strong sign of growing Corsican nationalism. The unprecedented result in favour of the nationalist party witness in 2017 also comes with a record 47.83 percent of voting abstentions in Corsica. Furthermore, during the second round of the presidential elections, the Front National headed by Marine Le Pen gathered 48,5 percent of votes, her best score. The success of the extreme right and subsequent Corsican nationalist endorsement is paradoxical given the nature of their political agenda, but show a general dissatisfaction with mainstream politics from the local electorate who did not endorse the new president Macron’s middle-way approach like the rest of France.  
The renewed success of Corsican nationalists in 2017 prompted President Macron to visit the island in early February 2018 and offered to add a specific mention to Corsica in the French Constitution in order to acknowledge its distinct identity, but also assert its attachment to the French Republic. The Nationalists major demands were however declined. French nationalism and constitutional tradition emphasis its single national identity and French as the only official language. This is a strong legacy of France’s unification process which aimed at assimilating its heterogeneous population under a common French-speaking nation. Furthermore, the decision to not concede any further autonomy is partly due to the fear that it may encourage similar demands in Brittany and Alsace.
Decentralisation in France has typically been a matter of functionality rather than driven by cultural or linguistic motivations. Nonetheless, the recent territorial reforms which fuse the country’s 22 metropolitan regions into 13 a prompted some criticism as to the historical and cultural compatibility of the new regional borders. Social protests have at times taken a regionalist or nationalist undertone, such as the 2014 protests against the “ecotax” on heavy trucks in Brittany. Protestors wore the “red cap”, a historical symbol of local resistance against Louis XIV, and waved Breton flags.  
The Unitary principle remains strong among the French political class and for most of the French population. The country which has so far been relatively immune to the decentralisation process witnessed in the past decades across Europe, from Italy to the UK. France harbours a very centralised system of government, especially when compared to the UK asymmetrical design and recognition of its distinct nations. President Macron made it clear that Corsica will not be allowed to distinguish itself further from the rest of France. There is a risk, however, that government continued emphasis on one, French-speaking, nation and symmetrical governance may lead to a strengthening of nationalist sentiment as more moderate demands are refuted. While the majority of Corsicans wish to remain part of France, the rise of a more coherent, peaceful, and moderate autonomist party in Corsica represent a new challenge for the French government.

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Alexandra Remond's picture
University of Edinburgh
9th March 2018
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