A recurrent pleasure for Scots living in France is to be reminded that the French know, and like, a lot more about Scotland than you ever imagined. If your schooling, like mine, dismissed the Auld Alliance as a sad product of the Caledonian Cringe, unknown to the French and dredged up merely to help Scots feel less inconsequential, think again. The French know a good deal about the history and, more to the point, they know of few reasons to regard Scotland other than with affection.
It generally kicks off with being asked, not always with conspicuous enthusiasm: 'Vous êtes anglais, monsieur?' In my own case, this inquiry is marginally more welcome than when they listen to me speaking French, and then ask, or rather state: 'Vous êtes allemands, monsieur'. Lately, once or twice, they've decided I'm Swiss. Perhaps my French is getting better.
You reply 'Mais non, écossais,' and immediately you are in a conversation: 'Ah, écossais!' A grin. Here in Montpellier, the first item on the agenda is invariably rugby, a subject which, like algebra, I left school to escape. The weather, popularly believed to be Arctic, comes next. After that, the questions grow more political: do Scots revere the Queen? Prince Charles? Boris Johnson? Have they managed to evade the worst impacts of Brexit? Why didn't they seize independence when they had the chance? And is monsieur aware that Scots provided the bodyguard for French monarchs, even after the Auld Alliance foundered on the Reformation?
Not surprisingly, this constitutional curiosity reached its height around the 2014 referendum, with a second wave of interest two years later when I found, to my astonishment, a high awareness that Scottish voters had disdained England's Brexit folly. So, m'sieur, now
will Scotland declare independence? No? Then when?
I have a feeling that these questions, particularly the last one, are about to swell up again in a third wave of interest. The reason is not, I'm afraid, that the French are enervated by Nicola Sturgeon's assurances about the coming of Indyref2… any more than are the Scots. It doesn't really have much to do with anything currently going on in Scotland. It has to do with things happening in France.
Chiefly, they are happening in Corsica, Brittany and Alsace, though there are echoes elsewhere too. In all three, on slightly different pretexts, a rising demand for autonomy can be heard.
This is remarkable for two reasons. First, it runs contrary to the whole idea of a 'one and indivisible' Fifth Republic: a protective centralised state, whose kindly embrace is inclusive to all on equal terms (though kindliness may not be the first trait noticed by those, like the Algerians, who have tried to wriggle free). Contained autonomy might seem a wishy-washy ambition to a country like Scotland that is contemplating independence, but here it is seen as a direct challenge to the patriotic rubric.
Second, and despite the foregoing, it is remarkable because, all of a sudden, there are signs that Paris may be ready to give some ground.
The upside of centralisation is that France takes obligations to its remote components seriously. That's the deal. Even the most far-flung specks of colonialism are afforded direct parliamentary representation, hours of boring documentary on French television, and regular inclusion in national news bulletins. National election results are delayed while handfuls of votes are gathered in tiny dependencies in the Caribbean, Indian Ocean and Pacific. When the South Pacific territory of New Caledonia voted against independence in a slightly dodgy referendum last December, Emmanuel Macron whooped: 'France is more beautiful because New Caledonia has decided to stay part of it'.
It was therefore little short of a bombshell when, during last month's presidential campaign, Interior Minister Gérard Darmanin went to Corsica in the wake of riots and told Corse Matin: 'We are ready to go as far as autonomy: there you go, the word has been said'. Say the word, as the Beatles once sang, 'and you'll be free'. Or rather, you'll be setting out on what both sides promise will be new talks with a new potential to generate real constitutional change.
If this does signal a policy sea-change, then the context of Corsica is not surprising but the moment is. Napoleon's island has agitated, often violently, to run its own affairs, and in its own language, pretty much constantly since France annexed it in 1768. In the past decade, following the lead of the IRA, nationalist groups suspended violence in search of negotiation. But last month, one of their leaders, Yvan Colonna, serving life in Arles prison for the 1998 murder of a Prefect, was fatally attacked by a jihadist inmate. Violent riots, and threats of renewed terrorism, erupted on Corsica.
Darmanin's intervention in the Mediterranean south-east immediately became a hot issue in the race for the French presidency. Nor were the implications lost on Scotland's fellow heritage Celts in the Atlantic north-west region of Brittany, where the regional council issued a prompt demand for Breton autonomy. Its vice-president, Stéphane Perrin, explicitly cited Scottish and Welsh devolution as working comparators should the demand make progress, though one seen as quite a long way along the road of autonomy. The council's immediate demands are for discussions towards more localised decision-making, some executive or legislative devolution, and a better budgetary deal.
Brittany, self-governing from the Dark Ages to the French Revolution, has different grievances from Corsica's. Though it is proud of its cultural distinctiveness, the real casus belli is local administration, stretching back to the wartime collaborationist regime in Vichy. Reflecting perennial Parisian nerves about carnaptious Brittany, Vichy moved the region's richest department – including Nantes, its capital – into a new agglomeration, Pays de la Loire. In the last quarter of the 20th century, the cause of reunification was pursued with some half-hearted bombings. A lot of demonstrations continue, fuelled by a lack of official recognition for the Breton language, alleged budget sharp practices, and having to endure the same sort of jokes that Brits used to make about the Irish.
Scotland's referendum in 2014 generated popular (but unheeded) demands in Brittany for a similar opportunity to vote on reuniting the region beneath a Breton 'assembly', possibly modelled on Cardiff. The regional grievance was aggravated in 2016, when a forced amalgamation of regions across France submerged the Brittany name altogether in something called 'Grand-Ouest'. Super-regions are unloved everywhere: here it mean Montpellier sourly forfeiting regional capital status to age-old rival Toulouse. In places like Brittany and Alsace, they rubbed new salt into old wounds.
Alsace has notoriously changed hands between Germany and France with bewildering regularity throughout much of history. It has consequently harboured separatists of varying degree, mostly peaceable, since Napoleonic times, but there too the cause was lent new force both by the Scottish referendum and by regional amalgamation: 'Grand Est' commands no more affection than does its Eastern counterpart. Polls show a large majority for political, fiscal and linguistic autonomy, and an online voting platform, modelled on Swiss consultative referenda, was set up at the start of the year.
More surprisingly, Paris tolerated the creation by two Grand Est départments of an unofficial council, the European Collectivity of Alsace, which is powerless but vocal. If Paris has been keeping a nervous eye on home-rule developments in Scotland, Wales and (above all) Catalonia, then so have agitators in those parts of France least easily satisfied by lofty dispensations from the banks of the Seine. As Scotland considers its own next moves, its exiles here in France can expect a continued flow of friendly questions… and, perhaps, just a slightly closer attention to the answers.
Keith Aitken is a journalist, writer and broadcaster