Thousands of Corsican nationalists marched peacefully on Saturday in advance of the visit. Photo: AFP
Emmanuel Macron embarks on one of the trickiest visits of his young presidency Tuesday when he travels to Corsica, a nationalist bastion demanding greater freedom from the highly centralised French state.
Macron's visit comes two months after a nationalist alliance trounced Macron's centrist Republic on the Move party in regional elections, boosting their quest for greater autonomy for the island of 330,000 people.
On Saturday, thousands of nationalists set the tone for his two-day stay with a peaceful march in the island's capital Ajaccio to demand "democracy" and "respect for the Corsican people".
Speaking to RTL radio on Monday, the leader of the regional government, Gilles Simeoni, said Macron's visit had the potential to be "historic".
"There is an historic window of opportunity to end the cycle of conflict," Simeoni said, referring to the nearly four-decade bombing campaign conducted by the National Liberation Front of Corsica (FLNC) before a 2014 ceasefire.
'Corsica is a nation'
The Corsican question has plagued French governments for decades.
Unlike Catalonia, leaders of the picturesque island where Napoleon Bonaparte was born have stressed that they are not seeking full independence — for the time being.
The island remains economically dependent on the mainland.
Macron had suggested during campaigning for president that he was prepared to go further than his predecessors in recognising the distinct nature of Corsica, which has its own language.
But so far his government has appeared reluctant to give into the nationalists' demands, particularly the idea of an amnesty for prisoners jailed for separatist violence.
Other demands include expanded use and recognition of the Corsican language and measures to give locals preferential access to the property market — a move aimed at keeping out wealthy mainlanders.
The official purpose of Macron's visit is to commemorate Claude Erignac, the state's top representative on the island who was assassinated 20 years ago in a nationalist attack that shocked the country and brought tens of thousands of Corsicans onto the street in protest.
Macron will lead a ceremony at the spot in Ajaccio where Erignac was gunned down while on the way to the theatre with his wife.
Simeoni, a moderate nationalist, will attend the ceremony but his more radical coalition partner, separatist assembly president Jean-Guy Talamoni, will pointedly stay away.
In an opinion piece in Le Monde, Talamoni urged Macron to "send a very strong sign of openness and dialogue" on his visit.
"The message of the people of Corsica is clear," Talamoni wrote, declaring that Corsicans saw their island "as a nation and not just an administrative unit".
President of the Corsican assembly Jean Guy Talamoni. Photo: AFP
On Wednesday, Macron will set out his policy on Corsica in a highly-anticipated speech in the northern city of Bastia.
For a hint of his thinking his advisers have referred reporters to a campaign speech in April 2017.
The then candidate had stressed that Corsica was an integral part of France but said: "If it becomes clear that the current context does not allow Corsica to develop its potential, we could envisage going further and revising the constitution."
Macron's party split
The issue of how much freedom to give Corsica has caused a split within Macron's own Republic on the Move party.
Six Corsican party members last week backed a resolution setting out the nationalists' demands, earning a rebuke from party leader Christophe Castaner.
Saturday's march on the islands was aimed as a show of force ahead of the visit.
Protest organisers said up to 25,000 people attended the demonstration, but officials gave a far lower estimate of some 6,000.
A longtime hotbed of anti-French militancy, which suffered thousands of bombings between the 1970s and 2000s — mostly targeting state infrastructure — Corsica has enjoyed a measure of stability in recent years.
The FLNC called a ceasefire in 2014 to give space to the political process but some nationalists have warned the violence could resume if the state refused the islanders' demands.
Simeoni described the situation as "potentially explosive".
"If the road to dialogue remains closed we would be in a crisis situation and a political dead-end," he said.
By AFP's Jerome Rivet and Loic Vennin