AJACCIO, France (Reuters) - Corsican nationalists on Monday demanded the French government enter into negotiations over greater autonomy for the Mediterranean island after they won almost half the votes in a local election.
The nationalists - split between those who seek greater autonomy and those who see full independence from France as the end-game - emerged as Corsica’s main political force for the first time in French regional elections in December 2015.
In a vote on Sunday for a newly created local assembly, the Pe a Corsica (For Corsica), an alliance of the two main nationalist parties, won 45.36 percent of the ballot, putting it in a commanding position for the second round vote on Dec. 10.
In the wake of Catalonia’s recent independence referendum, Corsican nationalists have downplayed any ambitions for secession, saying the island lacked the demographic and economic clout of the Spanish region.
Corsica has a population of just 320,000 people and a tiny 8.6 billion euro ($10.2 bln) economy.
The nationalists’ less ambitious demands, and dissatisfaction with the central government in France, probably helped the nationalists attract more votes on Sunday.
Pe a Corsica, which unites the moderately autonomist Femu a Corsica and the committed separatist Corsica Libera, has drawn up a 10-year road-map during which it hopes to obtain a new status giving the island greater autonomy and pave the way for stronger economic development.
“Paris must at last open dialogue with Corsica,” said Gilles Simeoni, the outgoing president of Corsica’s Executive Council and a member of Femu a Corsica. “Corsican people have their own identity and this must be recognized.”
The French government said it would not comment on the Corsican vote until after the second round.
France is a highly centralized state and its demands for more autonomy have often been met with irritation and a refusal to negotiate by past governments.
But support for the nationalist political movement has gained support since the most active clandestine group, the National Front for the Liberation of Corsica (FLNC), laid down its weapons in 2014 after a near four-decade long rebellion.
Corsica’s nationalists oppose France’s political and cultural dominance over the island, the birthplace of Napoleon annexed by Paris in 1768, and their demands for independence fueled years of bloodshed.
“At some point, the wishes of Corsican people will have to be taken into account,” Jean-Guy Talamoni, the president of the Corsican Assembly and leader of the pro-independence Corsica Libera movement, told France Inter radio on Monday.
However, he acknowledged those backing all-out independence were still in a minority.
“If a majority of Corsican people want independence in 10 years, in 15 years time, no one will be able to get in their way,” he said.
French President Emmanuel Macron’s ticket came in fourth in Sunday’s vote with 11.26 percent. His Republic On the Move party said the vote showed Corsicans’ loss of confidence in Paris and that it aimed to rebuild trust everywhere in France.
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Reporting by Paul Ortoli; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by John Irish and Susan Fenton