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French President Emmanuel Macron (C) talks to scientists as he visits the National Institute for Agronomic Research of San-Giuliano near Bastia, on the French Mediterranean island of Corsica, February 7, 2018. REUTERS/Raphel Poletti/Pool(reuters_tickers)
By Benoit Tessier
BASTIA, France (Reuters) - President Emmanuel Macron said on Wednesday he was open to adding a specific mention of Corsica in the French Constitution but rejected several other demands for autonomy made by the island's nationalist leaders.
Corsica's relationship with mainland France has long troubled French presidents. For 40 years, separatists waged a militant campaign, blowing up police stations and mansions owned by mainlanders and carrying out assassinations, before laying down their arms in 2014.
The head of the regional government, Gilles Simeoni, said that Macron had "missed an opportunity" to forge a new relationship with the island.
During his first visit to Corsica since his election last year, Macron attempted to tread a middle ground, condemning in strong terms past acts of militancy while playing up the need for better cooperation between the island and the mainland.
"I want us to open a new chapter of our history," Macron told Corsican officials. "I want everyone in the (French) Republic to be able to claim their identity, their specificity. But if this specificity is to be the Republic's enemy, then it's an error and I cannot accept it."
He offered the unexpected, symbolic move of recognition in the Constitution, a long-standing demand of Corsican nationalists.
But, speaking on a podium flanked by the French and EU flags and not the Corsican one, Macron also said the Corsican language would not be given official status and added that local authorities would not be allowed to veto property purchases by non-residents.
"The president of the republic could have shown himself to be a capable statesman, anchoring peace, building reconciliation and creating conditions for a calm dialogue taking into account this people's aspirations and interests," Simeoni said.
"He didn't do it. We consider that it is a missed opportunity," he added.
The mountainous Mediterranean island of Corsica, birthplace of Napoleon, became part of France in the 18th century after being ruled for centuries by the Republic of Genoa in what is now Italy. Its local culture has Italian elements and the local language is similar to Italian. With 330,000 inhabitants, it accounts for just 0.5 percent of the French economy.
Corsica's nationalist leaders, elected in December, have demanded a special status for the island in the constitution but also greater autonomy, as well as equal status for the French and Corsican languages and amnesty for Corsicans jailed for pro-independence violence.
Macron already said on Tuesday that there would be no amnesty.
The young president said mentioning Corsica in France's supreme law would both recognise its identity and anchor it within the French Republic.
"Corsica is at the heart of the (French) Republic," Macron said.
He added that further talks would determine what the plan to mention it in the Constitution would entail. This will be part of a broader reform of French institutions Macron said he would put to parliament in the spring.
In an hour-long speech that mostly touched on problems of everyday life for Corsicans - including high real estate prices and security - Macron said the island's regional leaders should not focus too much on institutional matters and should first use the powers they already have to fix problems.
Simeoni has warned in the past that violence could flare up again on the island if it did not obtain the autonomy it was seeking.
Macron also said he would prolong an investment plan for Corsica and that the government would look into simplifying construction rules on the island.
(Additional reporting by Paul Ortoli in Ajaccio; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Peter Graff and Toby Chopra)