Corsica’s Separatist Retreat

In June, Corsica’s most active separatist group, the National Liberation Front, or FLNC, declared an end to its decades-long armed resistance against the French mainland. For many, its communiqué outlining “a process of demilitarization” and “progressive exit from clandestine activities” was a surprising reversal.

Since the establishment of the FLNC in 1976, there have been over 10,000 terrorist operations on the island. The FLNC and other separatist groups claimed responsibility for about half of these (most of which targeted the homes of non-Corsicans); the FLNC has also been implicated in some 40 assassinations.

But despite what the separatists would like to believe, only a tiny minority of locals support independence. Weakened over the years, the FLNC now consists of a handful of activists. Most Corsicans are disgusted with the decades of bloody fighting over disbursements by the French government aimed at buying peace, and “patriotic” taxes imposed by separatists on local businesses.

When snitches are killed, a code of silence, or omertà, ensures that culprits are rarely brought to justice. In the most egregious case, omertà enabled the separatist Yvan Colonna, who in 1998 brutally murdered the prefect Claude Erignac, Paris’s most senior representative in Corsica, to hide on the island for four years before being arrested.

Corsicans also resent that, over the years, many separatists abandoned their lofty ideals and turned to organized crime. Many are making fortunes blackmailing local mayors for permits to build condominiums on pristine shores, or getting involved in casinos or foreign drug deals. These mafiosi, who are responsible for hundreds of murders on the island, are today’s real Corsican curse.

Despite its unpopularity, the FLNC’s decision to renounce armed conflict might, at first sight, appear to have come from a position of strength. The move stems from the adoption by the Corsican Assembly since 2013 of three major separatist demands: consideration of the Corsican dialect as a co-official language; a reference in the French Constitution that would pave the way for expanding Corsica’s administrative autonomy, granted in a 1991 statute; and, in April, mandatory five-year permanent residency on the island as a prerequisite for buying property. The FLNC communiqué explained that the residency vote had influenced their decision to abandon violence: “We think there now exists an opportunity to take a historic step in the fight for national liberation.”

But Corsican Assembly members on the right and left who backed the demands know they will never become law. The Assembly has no legislative powers. Its resolutions must be approved by the French National Assembly, and can often only become legally binding through constitutional modifications (for which there must be a three-fifths majority in both houses of the legislature).

A Corsican senator and vocal adversary of separatism, Nicolas Alfonsi, declared the resolutions “a dead end” as “the government will not submit a constitutional revision to Parliament.” Some see the Corsican Assembly’s approval of the statutes as a purely cynical attempt by the island’s traditional parties, which are staunchly opposed to independence, to win separatist votes ahead of regional elections in December 2015.

France, which conquered Corsica in 1769, never treated it as a colony. Napoleon, born the same year in Ajaccio, the island’s capital, remains a national hero. Many Corsicans are prominent establishment figures. Charles Pasqua was interior minister in two administrations; Bernard Squarcini headed France’s domestic intelligence service under President Nicolas Sarkozy. Jean-Marie Colombani ran the daily newspaper Le Monde from 1994 to 2007; Nonce Paolini chairs TF1, France’s largest private television network.

No French government would risk the explosion of a nation that took a thousand years to assemble — particularly as preparations are under way to fuse the country’s 22 regions into 13 larger ones. If a Corsican exception were confirmed, nothing would prevent Brittany and Alsace, for example, from demanding similar treatment.

In Ajaccio in June, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve conveyed Paris’s disapproval. A desire to “preserve a special identity must not set out a path toward breakup,” he said.

Paris has already been chastened by an eruption of violence in Brittany last October after the proposal of an “ecotax” on heavy trucks. Protesters donned the red caps worn by Bretons in 1675 to protest a stamp tax and which prefigured those worn during the French Revolution. Paris hurriedly suspended the ecotax, not wanting to reawaken a historic longing for regional liberties.

Corsican separatists envy France’s far-flung territories, particularly those in the Indian Ocean and South Pacific, which have been granted greater autonomy. But, paradoxically, there is no solidarity overseas with Corsica’s separatist cause. With the possible exception of New Caledonia, which has vast nickel resources and is slated for a referendum on independence by 2018, none would renounce the advantages of being French for the dream of independence.

The same could be said of the majority of Corsica’s 300,000 inhabitants. The island’s relatively weak economy has long been dependent on generous financial support from Paris, including tax breaks and subsidies for transportation to and from the mainland; about 30 percent of Corsicans are civil servants.

The FLNC’s carefully worded communiqué does not preclude an eventual resumption of shooting and bombing. This would not be without precedent: In past decades, several solemnly proclaimed truces have dissolved in bloodshed. But in the end the FLNC had no alternative to retreating. It may claim it has won an ideological battle, but the FLNC has lost the war: Corsica wants to stay French.

Charles Lambroschini is a former deputy editor of the French daily Le Figaro.

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