Corsica-France: talks launched, no doors closed but Corsicans voice disappointment

French prime minister meets Corsican leaders in Paris, refers them to upcoming speech by president Macron · Island’s government demands devolution of law-making powers, co-official status for Corsican

Talamoni (left) and Simeoni (right) in Matignon, 22 January.
Talamoni (left) and Simeoni (right) in Matignon, 22 January. Author: Twitter Gilles Simeoni
Neither yes nor no, and in any case we’ll see in fifteen days. And Corsican disappointment. This is the most accurate depiction of the meeting held by French prime minister Édouard Philippe yesterday with president of the Corsican government Gilles Simeoni and president of the Corsican Assembly Jean-Guy Talamoni in Matignon, their first official, high-level meeting after December’s electoral victory marked with an absolute majority of the Corsican pro-autonomy alliance.

Simeoni and Talamoni went to Paris with a clear message: a popular mandate for autonomy exists (56% of the votes for the Pè a Corsica alliance) and the French government should thus deliver what has been voted. There are four main demands by the Corsicans: law-making powers, resident status, co-official status for the Corsican language, and bringing political prisoners closer to the island.

From the French government, up to now, mostly negative signals have emerged: so-called minister of the Interior ministry Jacqueline Gourault —a newly created position that has taken on the Corsican dossier up to date— says it is not time to talk about legislative power, and insists that “the language of the Republic is French.”

Philippe was more inaccurate, if Simeoni’s words after yesterday’s meeting are to be believed. Speaking to Corse Net Infos, the Corsican leader said on several occasions that the prime minister “has not closed doors definitively nor has he pledged” to the demands and proposals presented by the Corsicans. And, in any case, Philippe referred them to a speech to be delivered by French president Emmanuel Macron, on February 6 in Ajaccio. “We did not get much, not to say we did not get anything,” Simeoni reflected, but at least Philippe “has said he is willing to start a dialogue and define a method.”

Even so, after today’s meeting with Senate president Gérard Larcher, Talamoni has voiced his disappointment with the result of the meetings. The Corsican leader believes French authorities “are not taking into account the political dimension” of the Corsican demands, and is calling for a “big popular demonstration” in coming days:

Simeoni posted another tweet with identical content.

Projecting a moderate image

The Corsican leaders, in any case, do not want to appear now before the public opinion as those who propose too demanding requests or adopt maximalist stances. They point out that their whole idea is based on procedures and examples that, in fact, are already contained in the French Constitution itself. Talamoni himself has requested doctor in Public Law Wanda Mastor to write a report on a possible constitutional embodiment of Corsica that would allow the island to gain autonomy. A mention of Corsica in the Constitution —by means of a new article recognizing the island’s specificity— could be the unlatching procedure that opened the door to, at least, some of the changes proposed by Pè a Corsica.

Such a mention, Corsican politicians believe, could be made seizing the opportunity created by a constitutional amendment that Macron is seeking to introduce in 2018.

Simeoni, in any case, insists on maintaining a moderate profile, and earlier this week remarked on the National Assembly television channel, referring to the case of Catalonia: “[In there] they’ve reached highly strung situations. We are not in this political logic. On the contrary, we seek to strengthen the cohesion of the Corsican society.” Mastor too takes distance with Catalonia, and instead traces parallelisms with Portugal, “the country that constitutionally looks more like France. It has not given autonomy to any of its regions, except its two islands —Madeira and the Azores.”

Demand #1: law-making powers

This is most certainly the star proposal of Pè a Corsica’s manifesto: the Assembly of Corsica should be vested with powers to adopt its own laws. As of now, it only possesses executive powers. Wanda Mastor’s report argues that an example of legislative autonomy already exists in France, that of New Caledonia, which approves its own laws —the so-called “lois de pays”— on a certain number of powers that have been devolved to the island. Language, land ownership and taxation are the three areas in which, according to Mastor, it would be appropriate to transfer powers to Corsican authorities. To that end, Mastor proposes to use article 74 of the Constitution; erstwhile a group of jurists, including Mastor, had earlier suggested that article 73 could also be used.

Both articles 73 and 74 are currently reserved for overseas departments and regions. That is why Simeoni and Talamoni insist on the need for the Constitution to pick up Corsican specificity somewhere in order to open that possibility.

Demand #2: co-official status for Corsican

Macron has publicly spoken on several occasions against accepting that Corsican may be a co-official language. His reasoning is based on Article 2 of the Constitution: “The language of the Republic is French.”

Again, on the side of the Corsicans, it is argued that registering the Corsican language in the Constitution would help overcome the problem.

On the French side, it is said that co-official status is no longer necessary given the fact that a policy of bilingualism in the island is currently being implemented in the island —the Corsican administration uses the language in its communications— which has allowed that 98% of students study Corsican and that 35% of primary students and 10% of secondary receive bilingual education in Corsican and French.

Demand #3: resident status

“Access to property is difficult for Corsicans. They cannot even pay burials”, says Mastor to justify that land ownership regulations must be one of the powers devolved to Corsica. Corsican nationalism is clear on that: too many Corsicans do not have enough money to afford paying real estate prices, while they are affordable to higher incomes from mainland France. To put an end to that situation which they perceive as unfair for the islanders, Corsican nationalist parties propose the creation of a resident status, a kind of Corsican citizenship that prevents non-Corsicans from acquiring property on the island unless they have dwelt there for a number of years —between 10 and 12, according to some proposals.

This one is a very difficult point to accept by French-wide parties, as they consider that it would break equality among the French citizens and, therefore, it would be clearly unconstitutional.

Demand #4: prisoners brought to Corsica

That the prisoners of the Corsican conflict may serve their sentences on the island is the last of the great demands of Corsican nationalism and, to this day, the less difficult one to be implemented by the French government. Philippe’s cabinet has in fact just accepted to approach ETA prisoners closer to the Northern Basque Country. On paper, there should be no major impediment to do the same with the Corsicans. The question of an amnesty would be another story for another day.