CORSICA: Election victory by nationalists puts Corsica centre stage

The National:

In her various trips around France prior to the country’s general election, the “hottest” welcome accorded to Marine Le Pen of the Front National came in Corsica.

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Le Pen’s father had opposed Corsican independence in his years in charge of the party, and nationalists on the island had not forgotten that.

A group from the Ghjuventu Indipendentista – youth for independence – organisation fought battles with Le Pen’s security team in the island’s capital Ajaccio, and successfully disrupted Le Pen’s visit, sending her homewards to think again.

They and their fellow Corsican nationalists then did the same to newly elected President Emmanuel Macron, only peacefully and through the ballot box.

It is important to understand that France is one of the most centralised countries in Europe, and successive French governments, while allowing regional governance, have simply ignored the various movements for greater autonomy and independence within France, and sometimes even tried to suppress them with all the forces of the state.

They could no longer ignore Corsican nationalism, however, after a momentous election on the island in December, 2015. Often seen as a cradle of French democracy, the Corsican people voted for change – and what a change that might yet be.

For once, the various groups advocating autonomy inside France or outright independence for the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte came together and won a famous victory that put Corsican nationalists in charge of the island’s government.

The new president of the Corsican Assembly was Jean-Guy Talamoni, 55, a lawyer and a hardline nationalist who declared that he was the leader of the “first national government of Corsica since the 18th century”.

He was probably assisted in his campaign by the statements of former president Nicolas Sarkozy who said: “Mr Talamoni does not want the French Republic? Well, the French Republic does not want Mr Talamoni. This is France.”

Sarkozy and all the elite in Paris had reckoned without Talamoni who promptly dedicated his win to “those who have never accepted French rule … and have never ceased to fight for the survival of the Corsican nation”.

Talamoni then called for the release of political prisoners held for many years since the darker days of the Corsican equivalent of Ireland’s Troubles.

His colleague Gilles Simeoni became president of the island’s executive council, and his personal stance for greater autonomy has won him vast support on the island.

Now it is Macron who has to deal with the situation in Corsica. By next year there will be a single government for Corsica, with the two departements on the island merged into one. It is being seen as a real opportunity to demand the right to determine the island’s future.

In June the movement now named Pe a Corsica (For Corsica) confirmed that the 2015 election had been no flash in the pan. Pe a Corsica won in three of the four constituencies on the island in the French legislative election on June 11 and 18, totally against the trend on the mainland where Macron’s En Marche party swept the boards.

The result staggered the French Government and political observers across the country, though anyone following events on the island, where armed struggle for independence had ceased in 2014, could have told you that peaceful agitation was winning many converts.

After the momentous news of the election of three nationalist deputies, Andre Fazi, lecturer in political science at the University of Corsica, pointed out to Liberation newspaper that the nationalist movement can also “count on militant numbers unrivalled in other political parties”.

He added: “They are building, if not a political hegemony, at least a predominance that will be difficult to challenge.”

In France they listen to their philosophers and one of the best known at the moment is Professor Yves Roucaute.

On his blog he has hailed the Corsican results and provided a succinct analysis of what it means for the island and for France.

“What is at stake?” he asked. “The Corsican nation. Its spirit exists.

“Not a ‘region’ and its ‘regionalists’, but a ‘nation’ with millennial history, with manners, values ​​and language, which gave the world, in 1755, the first democratic constitution … who refuses to be reduced to a tourist card or a playground for criminal groups.

“The nationalist vote? A vote ‘for’. A vote for the independentists and the autonomists who have reassured voters by their unity and their management.

“They have collective memories and interest, and plans for the future. The citizens applaud their urban development plans, their respect for territories, balanced development, the digital economy and adapted taxation.

“They want this ‘peace of the brave’ (to quote de Gaulle) with the amnesty for the political prisoners, and, through forgiveness, to prohibit hatred.

“The more the island takes hold of it, the more powerful it is. And France, too. But will she listen to the words of Corsican polyphony?”

Perhaps not only France but many other states need to hear the island’s song.

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BRITTANY: 30,000 marched through Nantes – inspired by our indyref – as Brittany seeks return of its richest region

The National:

In the midst of the ongoing debate over the use of the word National in the name of the SNP, which centres on that word’s links to right wing causes, there is an example near to us of a “nationalist” movement which, in the past, has been both left and right in its declared views.

Brittany in north-west France is one of the six nations in the Celtic League – the others are Scotland, Ireland, Wales, the Isle of Man and Cornwall – that began in Wales in 1961 and is still extant.

Most Scots are probably unaware that our fellow Celts in Brittany remained an independent nation – first a kingdom then a duchy – until the 16th century when King Francis I of France, the father-in-law of Mary, Queen of Scots, made Brittany officially a part of France in 1532, albeit with a great degree of self-government.

The French Revolution changed all that, with the Breton parliament dissolved and the language banned. For the next century and a half, the Breton people agitated quietly to have their ancient name and privileges restored, but it wasn’t until after World War II, during which some Breton nationalists collaborated with the Nazis while others joined the Resistance and the Free French forces, that Breton nationalism became a genuine political force.

It was an armed force, too, with two groups carrying out bombings until a young woman bystander was killed, after which the movement became peaceful and has remained so since the millennium.

It was always a cultural force – the Bretons are proud of their traditions and language, but they are also happy to be French, and realistically independence is not on the cards. Great autonomy is, and is being sought along with protection for the Breton language and culture.

What is also very much an issue is the anger that many, if not most, Bretons felt when the French Government tried to make the name of Brittany disappear off the map. Along with Turkey, France is the only country in the Council of Europe not to have signed the European Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, The idea was to create a new formal “Grand Ouest” area merging Brittany with the Pays de la Loire. All that did was remind Bretons that their richest of five departements, Loire Atlantique, had been taken away by the wartime Vichy Government and made into a separate departement.

Breton nationalists have agitated for the return of Loire-Atlantique to Brittany, with 30,000 people marching through Nantes in 2014 to call for this – their leaders cited the Scottish referendum as their inspiration.

Now the main Breton nationalist party, the left-wing Unvaniezh Demokratel Breizh (Breton Democratic Union or UDB) has seats in councils and the regional government, but the French Government refuses to recognise Breton nationalism as it does with all such movements – egalite means that all French citizens can only be French alone.

The UDB sees the reform of left-wing opposition to President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist En Marche party as key to the future of Brittany.

The party recently stated: “In the longer term, it seems that the left is to be rebuilt in Brittany as elsewhere. For the UDB, this work will have to be done on new bases.

“The idea of equality, which sometimes confuses theoretical equality with real equality, will no longer be able to ignore the diversity of territories and cultures.

“Regional and local self-government, within the framework of a federal republic … could be a remedy for the crisis of representative democracy.”

Will Macron listen, or will he, like almost every French President in this, the Fifth Republic, ignore Breton and nationalisms in France?

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OCCITANIE: Victory for a distinctive language and culture in Occitanie

The National:

Anyone thinking of travelling to those beautiful regions of France Languedoc-Roussilon and Midi-Pyrenees can forget it, for as of last September they were replaced by a larger entity merging the two, and the name chosen for the new region is Occitanie.

The name derives from the ancient area of southern France known as Occitania, which in bygone days covered a much larger area and was ruled by the Counts of Toulouse for centuries.

In the new Occitanie there are 13 departements and the population of 5.7 million is spread wide across the area, in which Toulouse and Montpellier are the largest cities.

The naming of the region that borders the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean was something of a coup for those who have long campaigned for recognition of Occitania as a distinct nation within France.

A referendum saw 44.9 per cent of the people of the area prefer the new name, which contrasts with the fact that the Occitan Party, which promotes autonomy for the area within France, has only a few seats on the region’s various councils.

Again it is language and culture which makes Occitania distinct, with Occitan listed as an official language, across a region that has been described as the “largest stateless nation in Europe”.

In October 2015, a large demonstration took place in Montpellier to campaign for the preservation of the Occitan language – one of five such demonstrations across France in support of minority languages. It was a turning point for various organisations promoting self-determination for the area.

The Occitan Party’s federal secretary is Professor Gustave Alirol, a left leaning environmental campaigner and also leader of France’s Regions et Peuples Solidaires group.

Alirol has been scathing about the French Government’s tinkering with the regional governments of France last year, which resulted in virtually no changes in areas with strong demands for autonomy.

At a conference on the subject earlier this year, he said: “European and regional policies are intimately linked, the centralised states that do not grant normative powers to their regions deprive the latter of their development capacities.”

He was referring to France, but might well have been speaking of the UK, where it is countries, not regions, that are deprived of a future.

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