Paris could offer “autonomy” to Corsica, the French government has said, suggesting the state might be willing to loosen its historic, centralised grip on the Mediterranean island as it struggles to calm violent protests.
“We are ready to go as far as autonomy – there you go, the word has been said,” the interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, told the regional newspaper Corse Matin before a two-day visit, that comes after two weeks of rioting in which 100 people were injured and public buildings and police were attacked with homemade explosive devices.
But Darmanin added that “there can be no dialogue while violence is going on”. He said: “A return to calm is an essential condition.”
The birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte has been French since the 18th century and while its status and calls for more independence has long vexed Paris, they have been brushed under the carpet by successive French presidents.
The protests on the island have created a major government crisis with just weeks before April’s presidential election.
The 40-year Corsican “national liberation” campaign of bombing and violence targeting French infrastructure, calmed in 2014 when armed separatists announced an “end to military operations”.
Since then, Corsican nationalists seeking greater autonomy from the French state have been boosted by election successes at local and regional levels, but Emmanuel Macron is seen as having failed to move on the issue during his presidency and autonomist and nationalist Corsicans alike are frustrated that the issue of reforming the island’s status has been on ice since 2018.
The protests broke out two weeks ago after a savage prison attack on a key jailed nationalist, Yvan Colonna, who was being held at a mainland French prison. He is in a coma after another prisoner, who was serving a nine-year sentence for planning terrorist attacks, attempted to strangle him in an exercise area.
Colonna was serving a life sentence for murder for being part of a group who assassinated Claude Érignac, the French state’s top official in Corsica, in 1998. He had been arrested in 2003 after a five-year manhunt that eventually found him living as a shepherd in the Corsican mountains. The prison attack on Colonna stoked anger on the island, where some see him as a hero in a fight for independence from France.
On the edge of demonstrations, hundreds of hooded protesters have thrown projectiles, molotov cocktails and homemade explosive devices at police and public buildings. Prosecutors said 102 people were injured on Sunday during clashes in Corsica’s second-largest city, Bastia. Of the injured, 77 were police. The chief prosecutor of Bastia told AFP the city had witnessed “extremely violent” scenes and the SG police union said officers were dealing with a “quasi-insurrectional” situation.
The government had already tried to soothe nationalist anger by removing the special prisoner status from Colonna and two of his group – which had prevented them from being transferred to a Corsican jail. That could allow for their transfer to a prison on Corsica rather than the French mainland – a key, longstanding nationalist demand for all prisoners they see as “political”. But it has not calmed the protests.
Darmanin, who was to meet elected officials in the Corsican capital, Ajaccio, said Colonna had been attacked in prison by a jihadist fellow inmate over “blasphemy” in “a clearly terrorist” act. “This talk of a crime by the state is excessive, not to say intolerable,” he told Corse Matin.
Gilles Simeoni, the pro-autonomy president of Corsica’s regional council, and a former lawyer for Colonna, said it was important that “the interior minister, in the name of the prime minister, and probably the president, says publicly today that the government and the state are ready to enter into a historic discussion”.
No details have been given by the government but a discussion could examine an autonomous status in which Corsica takes charge of certain legislative powers, such as taxation, local economic development, and housing issues on the island known for the high number of holiday homes owned by non-Corsicans.
An Ifop poll published on Sunday in Corse Matin found that 53% of those questioned favoured a degree of autonomy for Corsica, with 35% favouring the island’s outright independence from France.
Macron’s opponents in the French presidential race – which polls show he will win – said the rioting and public order crisis had led Macron to move on the Corsica issue. Valérie Pécresse said it showed that Macron “gives in to violence”. She said public order must be restored in Corsica before any negotiations take place.