Death of Corsican Nationalist Fuels Autonomy Calls Elsewhere

A decades-old struggle for greater autonomy in the French island of Corsica is gaining new momentum, after Paris said it was open to discussions following the death of an imprisoned Corsican nationalist. Now another French area off the mainland — French Guiana, in South America — is also pushing for greater self-rule.

Top nationalist figures turned out for Yvan Colonna’s funeral last Friday at his ancestral hometown of Cargese, in western Corsica. The former shepherd died after being attacked by an Islamist extremist at a prison in mainland France. Colonna was serving a life sentence for the 1998 assassination of France’s top official in Corsica.

Colonna’s death has sparked some of the most violent demonstrations in years on the Mediterranean island, which is a popular tourist destination. Protesters, many of them young Corsicans, blame the state for not accepting a longstanding nationalist demand to transfer Colonna and his accomplices to a prison in Corsica.

Now, Paris appears to be listening. In a surprise announcement, French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin says the government is open to greater Corsican autonomy. He visited the island earlier this month, holding talks with the ruling nationalists. But in interviews with French media like this one, Darmanin has ruled out full independence for Corsica.

University of Bordeaux Corsican specialist Thierry Dominici told RTL radio that Colonna’s death has been like a spark unleashing pent-up anger and nationalist aspirations of young Corsicans especially. He and others warn of more violent demonstrations to come.

Corsica is not the only place pushing against France’s centralized government. Brittany and Alsace also have nationalist movements — but nowhere near as strong as Corsica’s, where nationalists dominate the local government.

Some of France’s overseas territories, like New Caledonia and Polynesia, have gained various degrees of autonomy over the years, following referendums. Now, apparently inspired by Corsica, lawmakers from another overseas area — French Guiana — are also pushing for more autonomy.

In Corsica, the militant Corsican National Liberation Front movement waged a nearly 40-year armed struggle for the island’s independence, which ended in 2014. Colonna’s assassination of French prefect Claude Erignac was the most serious incident.

Today, many Corsicans do not support full independence. The island’s nationalist leaders are themselves divided, with some supporting more autonomy in areas like fiscal powers — alongside the official recognition of the Corsican language — and hardliners backing full independence.

Candidates for France’s April presidential elections are also divided. Far-right hopeful Marine Le Pen opposes autonomy for Corsica, while a number of leftist candidates support it. A recent IFOP poll finds just over half of all French support an autonomous statute for Corsica.

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