AJACCIO, Corsica (AP) — Emmanuel Macron made a vibrant plea for the unity of the French Republic as he arrived Tuesday in Corsica for a two-day visit, at a time when nationalists on the Mediterranean island are gaining influence.
Highlighting the role played by Corsicans in the liberation of France during World War II, the French president cut a dignified face during a tribute to the late prefect Claude Erignac, who was shot dead 20 years ago in Ajaccio by pro-independence activists he said were mere terror extremists. Erignac was France’s top official on the island.
Macron laid flowers at the foot of a tree planted on a small square named after Erignac, then closed his eyes briefly as a bugle call resonated. Macron and Erignac’s widow Dominique unveiled a plaque commemorating the prefect on the plaza.
“Corsica, a proud and dignified land, has been sullied by this crime,” Macron said. “What took place here on Feb. 6, 1998 can’t be justified, can’t be pleaded, can’t be explained. A man was killed because he served the Republic.”
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The shooting of Erignac, 60, marked a peak in violence on the island, which is home to 330,000 inhabitants and been part of France since 1768. He was shot from behind three times in the head outside a theater in Ajaccio.
“French people turned against the nation,” Macron said, recalling the tragic event. “They took weapons against the Republic. In this undertaking, others have lost their honor, and even their souls. Such a deed has nothing to do with a so-called liberation fight.”
The assassination stunned France as Corsica’s violence had been mostly low-level at the time, often involving bombs planted in cars or buildings overnight, when no one is inside.
Insisting that her husband was a “man of dialogue and peace,” Erignac’s widow thanked Macron for the tribute and his reaffirmation of the French Republic’s values.
“It also testifies that the page has not been turned,” she said. “How could it be different as (the page) is stained with blood? Hopefully the Republic will never get weaker in Corsica.”
After a private luncheon, Macron was scheduled to meet with nationalist leaders Gilles Simeoni and Jean-Guy Talamoni in the evening.
Simeoni, the head of the regional assembly, said Macron’s visit is “an extremely important moment with the potential to become historic” in the sometime-complicated relationship between the French state and Corsica.
Thousands of nationalists demonstrated Sunday ahead of the president’s visit, asking for more autonomy, equal status for the Corsican language and the release of so-called “political” Corsican prisoners held in mainland prisons.
In December, Corsican nationalists swept the election for a new regional assembly, crushing Macron’s young centrist movement and traditional parties. The nationalists want more autonomy from Paris but unlike many in Spain’s nearby Catalonia, they aren’t seeking full independence.
They also want protections for locals buying real estate on the destination that the French refer to as the “Island of Beauty,” which is famed as Napoleon’s birthplace.
A campaign of separatist violence began in the mid-1970s but nationalists have laid down weapons to focus on political means.
The strategy paid dividends in December when a coalition of moderate and harder-line nationalists won 56.5 percent of the vote in regional elections, obtaining 41 of the 63 seats in the new assembly. Candidates from Macron’s Republic on the Move! party won just six seats.
Petrequin reported from Paris.