Corsica nationalists demand more freedoms after election gains

Nationalists seeking greater autonomy for France's Corsica on Monday ruled out a Catalan-style independence bid but demanded greater freedoms for the island after winning the first round of regional elections.

The governing Pe a Corsica (For Corsica) alliance -- made up of the pro-autonomy Femu a Corsica (Let's Make Corsica) and pro-independence Corsica Libera (Free Corsica) -- won 45.36 percent of the vote in Sunday's election to the regional assembly.

Its nearest rival, the Corsican rightwing party La Voie de l'Avenir (Future Path), scored 14.97 percent.

A second round of voting will be held on December 10.

The result was seen as a boost for separatist and pro-autonomy movements in Europe, coming two months after Catalonia held a banned referendum on independence from Spain.

It showed the nationalists, who have been in power at the local level for two years, continuing to reap the rewards of the end of the armed struggle conducted by separatists between the mid-1970s and 2014.

But their thumping result -- up ten points on their breakthrough score in the second round of regional elections in 2015 -- was clouded by low turnout.

Nearly one in two voters on the Mediterranean island of 330,000 people abstained from voting, reflecting widespread apathy at the end of a year in which France also held presidential and parliamentary elections.

One of the losers in the first round was French President Emmanuel Macron's centrist Republic on the Move (LREM) party. It trailed in fourth place with 11.26 percent, behind France's main opposition Republicans in third with 12.77 percent.

The leader of Femu a Corsica -- the bigger of the two parties in the ruling alliance -- called the result a "democratic tidal wave" in favour of more autonomy.

"I think that today Corsica is sending a very strong signal to Paris and that a large majority is saying: we want peace, we want democracy, we want to build an emancipated island," Gilles Simeoni said.

The leader of the pro-independence Corsica Libera, Jean-Guy Talamoni, claimed it showed that "for Corsicans, Corsica is a nation". He demanded that Paris enter talks on boosting the status of the Corsican language and recognising jailed separatists as political prisoners, among other issues.

Andre Fazi, political scientist at the University of Corsica, expressed surprise at the nationalists' "huge" result.

"The desire for independence will depend on the government's response," he said, noting that the armed struggle had flared in the 1970s in the face of a hardline response from Paris to modest nationalist demands.

- Autonomy, not independence -

Both Simeoni and Talamoni ruled out an imminent bid for independence.

"The question of independence is not on the cards today," Simeoni told France's Europe 1 radio, adding: "We want autonomy."

His coalition partner Talamoni -- nicknamed Corsica's Puigdemont after Catalonia's separatist leader Carles Puigdemont -- admitted that there was currently no groundswell of support for independence.

"We're not in the same situation as Catalonia," he said, noting that the Spanish region was far wealthier.

"But if a majority of Corsicans want (independence), in 10 or 15 years, nobody will be able to oppose it," he told France Inter radio. France has a tradition of strong central government.

Corsica, a mountainous island with its own language and special administrative status, has had an at times troubled relationship with the wealthier mainland.

The separatist National Liberation Front of Corsica (FLNC) launched a bombing campaign in the mid-1970s targeting mainly state infrastructure. It eventually called off the campaign in 2014.

The worst nationalist attack claimed the life of France's top official on the island, Claude Erignac, who was assassinated in 1998.

In the past decade, however, the situation has stabilised.

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