© AFP/File / by Maureen COFFLARD with Jacques KLOPP in Paris | Even separatist leader Jean-Guy Talamoni, nicknamed by some the "Corsican Pugdemont", suggests any split from France would come in 10 to 15 years at the earliest
AJACCIO - 8 December 2017: Nationalist gains at the ballot box in Corsica may have earned the French island comparisons with Catalonia, but even its hardcore separatists admit that breaking away is a distant dream.
The ruling alliance of separatists and pro-autonomy candidates took 45 percent of the vote in last weekend's first round of regional elections, advances they look set to cement in Sunday's final round.
The score represents a ten-point rise in the Pe a Corsica ("For Corsica") alliance's showing when they came to power at the local level two years ago on the island where Napoleon was born.
Like Spain's Catalonia, the stunningly beautiful island wedged between France and Italy has its own language, a proud identity and a history of testy relations with the central government.
But while the Catalan separatists led by Carles Puigdemont went as far as a full-blown independence declaration, Corsican nationalists are sticking to more modest goals.
Energised by last weekend's gains to push for more autonomy, they have already revived three demands long rejected by Paris.
They want equal recognition for the Corsican language and an amnesty for convicts they consider to be political prisoners.
And they want the state to recognise a special Corsican residency status -- partly an effort to fight property speculation fuelled by foreigners snapping up holiday homes.
These are sensitive issues on an island where a four-decade bombing campaign by the National Liberation Front of Corsica (FLNC) -- mainly targeting state infrastructure -- was called off only in 2014.
The worst nationalist attack saw France's top official on the island, Claude Erignac, assassinated in 1998.
- Nationalism, the new normal -
Calm returned when the FLNC laid down its weapons -- which, according to political analyst Jerome Fourquet, has helped to "normalise nationalism".
The nationalists have become "a responsible, presentable political force", Fourquet wrote in a report for the Jean Jaures Foundation.
As part of this more moderate approach, nationalists assure that an immediate independence bid is not on the table.
Even separatist leader Jean-Guy Talamoni -- nicknamed by some "the Corsican Puigdemont" -- suggests the island would split from France in 10 or 15 years at the earliest, if a majority supported it.
Yet opinion polls show that most of Corsica's 330,000 residents, many of whom live off seasonal tourism and rely heavily on state subsidies, want to stay part of France.
Even in the northern village of Belgodere, where nationalists scored 90.22 percent last Sunday, the result was largely a reflection of local problems.
"I'm not voting out of political allegiance, or for autonomy or independence," said Jean-Paul Pernet, the village's only doctor, who backed the nationalists.
He voted, he said, "for people who will bring concrete plans" to rural areas that feel isolated and neglected by authorities.
- Much poorer than Catalonia -
The nationalists' opponents have repeatedly raised the prospect of Corsica being "the next Catalonia".
But Andre Fazi, a politics lecturer at Corsica University, dismissed a Catalonia-style independence bid as a "fantasy".
For Thierry Dominici, a Corsica specialist at the University of Bordeaux, the main barrier to independence is the island's heavy economic dependence on the mainland.
That is not the case for Catalonia, where chief among many separatists' complaints is that their wealthy region, representing a fifth of Spain's economic output, does not get enough back for what it pays into national coffers.
Corsica, by contrast, represents just 0.4 percent of the French economy, suffering from higher unemployment and poverty rates than the mainland.
"An economically viable Corsica -- I don't think we'll see it in my lifetime," Dominici said.
"Even in terms of constitutional law, it's a completely different situation," he added.
While Catalonia already enjoys widespread autonomy in policy areas such as health, education and policing, "France is the most centralised unitary state in Europe," Dominici said.
Even hardline Corsican separatists like the small U Rinnovu party have limited themselves to pushing for an independence referendum in 2032.
But there are keen expectations in the nationalist camp that their election gains could build momentum for greater autonomy.
"The state has everything to gain in responding to at least one of their three demands," Dominici said.
"If it does nothing, the islanders will take to the streets. The nationalists won't even have to ask them to do it."