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French government dampens Corsican nationalists' autonomy hopes

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French government dampens Corsican nationalists' autonomy hopes

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PARIS (Reuters) - France's government on Tuesday ruled out major concessions towards autonomy sought by Corsica's nationalists after they won a regional election, but said it was open to talks that took account of the island's distinctive character.

The nationalists on Sunday won two thirds of the seats in the new regional council that takes office on Jan. 1.

Their ambitions are relatively modest among the wave of secessionist movements that have sprung up in parts of Europe as its traditional political forces have lost traction.

Unlike Catalonia's nationalists, they do not target outright independence, but they do seek official status for the Corsican language and a greater say on fiscal issues.

Government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux said there were Corsican "specifics" to be taken into account in the discussions that Paris holds with all new regional authorities.

"(But) let's be clear ... this was not a referendum or a vote on autonomy or independence," he told France 2 TV.

The Corsican nationalists also want to be able to decide who can buy properties and they seek liberty for those they call political prisoners, who have been condemned for attacks or are awaiting judgment.

The sun-drenched island, the birthplace of Napoleon and known as much over recent decades for its sometimes violent independence movements as for its stunning landscapes, has long been a thorn in the side of French governments.

Clandestine group the National Front for the Liberation of Corsica (FLNC) laid down its weapons in 2014 after a near four-decade long rebellion, in a major shift that helped boost the popularity of the moderate nationalists who won Sunday's election.

RESPECTING THE LAW

Asked about prisoners, Griveaux said: "The law must be respected. When there have been crimes and a court ruling, when people have been condemned, the sentence should be carried out."

Asked about Corsican becoming an official language on the island alongside French, Griveaux said provision had already been made in various regions to allow the use of a local language, for instance in some schools. But "the language of the Republic is French," he added.

Political analyst Andre Fazi, a lecturer at the University of Corsica, said it would be hard for the nationalists to get what they wanted.

"But with Sunday's election win, it would also be risky for the government to not do anything," he said. "Shutting the door completely could boost calls for outright independence, as was the case in Catalonia."

In a sign that the government might be taking this into account, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe on Sunday called nationalist leader Gilles Simeoni to congratulate him on his win and told him he was willing to see him soon in Paris.

(Reporting by Ingrid Melander; editing by John Stonestreet)

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