AJACCIO, France (Reuters) - A group of ten-year-old schoolchildren on the Mediterranean island of Corsica proudly raised their hands in class one morning this week to say they felt Corsican, not French.
Their teacher, Nathalie Lanfranchi, grew up speaking French at home but now talks with her daughters in Corsican and teaches in both languages in this school in the outskirts of the island’s biggest city, Ajaccio.
In some countries, that would raise few eyebrows.
But for France, a centralized state with a single, national identity and only one official language, Corsica’s demand for more autonomy is a challenge.
The children - 11 consider themselves to be only Corsican, one only French and one claims both identities - greeted visitors with a cheerful Corsican “Bonghjornu” rather than the French “Bonjour”.
But President Emmanuel Macron may face a cooler welcome when he visits the island next week after ministers infuriated Corsica’s nationalist leaders by refusing several of their demands, including official status for the Corsican language.
“Our goodwill has been taken for weakness by Paris but we are not weak, we are strong with the support of Corsicans,” said regional parliament speaker Jean-Guy Talamoni.
“Corsicans want to be recognised as a nation,” he said, adding that a protest march on Saturday would show just that.
Unlike Spain and Germany, France has always been reluctant to give much power to its regions, despite some decentralization in the 1980s.
With nationalism on the rise, as in Catalonia and other regions of Europe, Corsicans elected nationalist leaders in December and Macron now faces demands for local powers over issues as varied as taxation and property buying.
While the French tricolor flies over official buildings throughout France, it was not to be seen in Talamoni’s office, or on the front of the town hall in Granace, a tiny village of ancient stone houses in southern Corsica.
Instead, mayor Jean-Yves Leandri proudly displayed the black-and-white flag with a Moor’s head that symbolizes Corsica.
Rather than the tricolor sash French elected officials wear for ceremonial duties, Leandri conducts weddings with one he had specially made, again adorned with a Moor’s head. He never went to pick up the portrait of Macron that should be hanging on his wall.
“We took away the French flag, it’s got nothing to do here, it’s Corsica,” the 54-year-old mayor said.
Leandri, a nationalist since his early 20s, is not the first in his family to be elected mayor of the village of about 100 souls. But he is the first nationalist.
Nationalist groups had staged thousands of attacks over four decades before laying down their weapons in 2014, and it took a long time to convince voters to back nationalist politicians, Leandri said.
“People used to be afraid of us,” he said. He managed to convince people to vote for him only when the violence stopped.
“Now we need to work, and work more than the others, to build a country,” he said.
In a sign of how widespread demands for autonomy have become in Corsica, Jean-Andre Miniconi, a local business leader, said authorities on the island needed more powers to boost its economy and deal with specific problems such as higher transport costs and a shortage of affordable housing.
Even the conservative mayor of Ajaccio, Laurent Marcangeli, said he favored giving the Corsican language official status alongside French, and wanted special status for the island in the French constitution.
But where they differ with nationalists, and where even nationalists disagree among themselves, is on whether autonomy would be enough or if they should aim for independence.
In wealthy Catalonia, which has had wide powers and where Catalan is an official language, Corsica’s demands for autonomy would seem modest.
But Corsica has only 325,000 inhabitants and accounts for less than 0.5 percent of France’s economy. One in five inhabitants lives under the poverty threshold.
Parliament speaker Talamoni, who wants independence at some point in the future and calls France “a neighbouring country”, says independence currently only has minority support and Corsica must first build up its economy and administrative infrastructure.
He struck a 10-year deal with nationalist politician Gilles Simeoni, who is also not a separatist, to seek more powers for Corsica but not independence.
This pact, together with the new-found peace and disillusion with mainstream parties, propelled them to victory in December, with Simeoni emerging to lead the regional government.
While they must convince Macron to delegate powers to their region, Simeoni and Talamoni must also ensure that activists who fought for such powers, often by blowing up buildings and attacking government officials, don’t feel left out, said Jean-Paul Carrolaggi, a veteran separatist.
Simeoni said Macron must show next week that he is willing to heed some of their demands, warning that some return to violence on the island could not be excluded if Corsicans felt they were not being heard. [L8N1PR1AB]
Writing by Ingrid Melander; editing by Giles Elgood