The French call the Mediterranean island of Corsica the “Isle of Beauty”. Located off the north-west coast of Italy with a population of 300,000 people it is rugged, mountainous and full of steep cliffs and mountain streams. Many of its peaks reach heights of over 2.5 kilometres and remain snow capped even during the hot Mediterranean summer.
But the natural beauty disguises the true history and tension of an island that has never accepted its place within the French Republic. Unlike Brittany, Occitania or any other region of France, the majority of people who live in Corsica still speak their own unique language, which closely resembles Italian, despite a concerted attempt by the French government to wipe out minority and regional languages.
The history of Corsica mirrors those of many other small nations in Europe who suffered oppression at the hands of much larger neighbours. Its key location at the heart of the Mediterranean meant that it faced attacks, raids and occupations from the Greeks, Romans, Genoese, Vandals, Pisans, Moors and eventually the French.
The island enjoyed a mere 14 years of independence from 1755 to 1769 under the leadership of their national hero, Pascal Paoli, after driving the Genoese from their land. During this time, Corsica became the first independent country to grant women the right to vote and its constitution, written under Enlightenment principles, was years ahead of its time.
In 1767, the French launched an invasion of the island. Paoli's forces fought desperately to defend their new republic but the overwhelming numbers of the French army finally consolidated their hold on the island in 1770. Paoli fled to Britain where he remained until the French Revolution allowed him to return to Corsica. Ironically, another native Corsican, Napoleon Bonaparte, who would later become Emperor of the French, was a young supporter of Paoli. His father had served as a personal assistant to the revolutionary leader and writing to him in exile in May 1789, Napoleon said:
"As the nation was perishing I was born. Thirty thousand Frenchmen were vomited on to our shores, drowning the throne of liberty in waves of blood. Such was the odious sight which was the first to strike me.”
In January I travelled along with Sinn Féin Councillor Pádraig Quinn to the island to take part in the annual Scontri Internaziunali youth event which is held in the University in the ancient capital of Corti each year. As we drove from the northern coastal town of Bastia up into the mountains of the interior the anti-French feeling became more evident. French language roadsigns are either painted out or riddled with bullet holes while graffiti declaring support for the outlawed National Front for the Liberation of Corsica (FLNC) was plastered all over walls.
Tourists are warmly welcomed in Corsica, but those trying to purchase land are not. Passing through one small rural village we noticed the letters IFF painted in 6 foot-high letters on a wall, the phrase stands for the Corsican phrase “French Out” and beside it were painted a coffin and a packed suitcase.
In the 1970s the situation in Corsica exploded. Poor economic conditions, appalling infrastructure and lack of third-level education and job opportunities brought the situation to boiling point. A major factor was the increasing number of holiday homes owned by French continentals. Despite Corsica having a population of only 200,000 people in the 1960s, by the end of the decade more than 50,000 French mainlanders had purchased homes on the island. These homes resulted in a property bubble, putting house prices outside of the reach of many native Corsicans. In 1973 a wave of bombings targeting holiday homes rocked the island. A group calling itself the Native Corsican Liberation Front (FPCL) called for the expulsion of what it termed “colonists”. By 1974 more than 100 bombs had exploded.
The turning point, when Corsica went from a mild irritant to a serious political crisis for the French, came in the summer of 1975, when a wine scandal was uncovered between four newly arrived French farmers and a wine company based in Paris. The scandal which involved illegal transactions and alleged cover-up by the French government, threatened to collapse the important Corsican wine industry.
In response, members of a local political group occupied the farms of one of the implicated farmers. Some of the men carried hunting rifles, which is not uncommon in Corsica, and informed the police they would leave peacefully after three days. Outside hundreds of supporters gathered. The French government, unfamiliar with Corsican customs, where it is not considered strange to carry a hunting rifle (their national sport is hunting) over reacted. 1,200 police backed by helicopters and armoured cars surrounded the compound. Shots rang out and two police officers lay dead, apparently shot by the protesters who had gathered outside. Who fired first is still disputed but those inside surrendered immediately and were arrested.
The political party who organised the protest were banned. That night the island was engulfed in rioting. In the northern town of Bastia where the men were being held, gun battles raged between nationalists and police with another officer killed. Sporadic clashes continued while in the background an armed organisation was being established. That group was the FLNC which would launch an armed struggle in 1976. The organisation still exists to this day, although it is nowhere near as powerful as it was in the hot summers of the 1970s and 80s. Indeed during the 1980s it was the only European guerrilla group to carry out more bomb attacks in one year than the IRA - in one night it managed to bomb 78 targets in Corsica and 19 banks in Paris without causing a single fatality.
During this period, pro-French paramilitary groups such as FRANCIA and the Civic Action Service also emerged. The groups targeted known nationalists and carried out bomb attacks on offices and centres run by nationalist groups. In one incident in a village a few miles north of Ajaccio on 6 January 1980, three members of a pro-French paramilitary group were captured as they attempted to drive through a checkpoint controlled by armed nationalists. One of the men who was captured claimed that the pro-French groups were being controlled by a senior police inspector based in Ajaccio. Two days later, the captured men were freed as a large force of French police which included armoured combat vehicles raided the village, arresting eleven people. That summer at the European Parliament a group of MEPs, which included Neil Blaney and John Hume, called on the EU to compile a report on the deteriorating situation on the island.
As the armed struggle dragged on, various political parties which were either supportive, or at least refused to condemn FLNC actions, appeared and disappeared. Electoral success was hard to come by as the Right held a powerful grip on the island although the moderate nationalists did have some success. Despite the ongoing violence, the island only made international headlines when bombs exploded in mainland France and this had become much less frequent from the 1980s onwards. In 1982 Corsica was given its own regional assembly. The assembly secured further powers in 1992 and an advisory Economic, Social and Cultural council was also set-up.
The island became front-page news across the globe in February 1998 when Claude Érignac, the Prefect of Corsica and the most senior representative of the French government on the island, was shot dead in a gun attack in the capital of Ajaccio. All of the major armed groups denied involvement in the killing and a local shepherd and nationalist was later found guilty of the killing in June 2011.
The 90s and 2000s saw the splintering of the independence movement with bitter feuds and poor electoral performances. However, during the 2000s two leading nationalist parties emerged. The first, Party of the Corsican Nation, appeared in 2002 and was formed following a merger by a number of moderate nationalist parties. The second, Corsica Libera (Free Corsica) was formed just three years ago when three pro-independence parties, some linked to the FLNC decided to merge.
I met Lyvia Cosimi, a representative of Corsica Libera and who is also active with Consulta di a Gjhuventú Corse, a pro-independence organisation which is active in the University of Corsica and other educational institutions. Lyvia is also active with the Solidarity Association which campaigns on behalf of the 70 or so Corsican political prisoners currently being held in French prisons.
In its first election, Corsica Libera gained 10% of the vote while the moderate nationalists garnered 26%. It was an astounding result for the parties.
“In the last election we noticed nationalism and pride in our country and language had increased in recent years.” she said
“We noticed that a lot of people felt very strongly about protecting Corsica. There has definitely been a rise in national conciousness.”
Asked what she attributed the rise in support to, Lyvia said that young people are increasingly identifying themselves as Corsican rather than French.
“Young people play a huge part in the struggle. Many see independence as a solution to much of the problems faced here.”
The island has a massive problem with outward migration. “Unless you can get a job in tourism or medicine, then there are very few opportunities for young people here” she said. In contrast the number of people moving in and buying up property in Corsica remains high. The island is seen as an upmarket destination for holidaymakers yet it is one of the poorest regions in France.
Later that night we attended a Corsican cultural night in a marquee which was set up on the campus. When we arrived a statement from the FLNC was being distributed to some of those in attendance. The statement claimed responsibility for 38 bomb attacks in the latter half of 2011. The majority of the bombs destroyed holiday homes and villas belonging to people from the French mainland while five targeted government facilities. None of the attacks caused any injuries. The spike in bombings last year even resulted in the British Government advising their citizens not to travel to the island.
The seven-page FLNC statement also reiterated the aim of the movement to obtain for the Corsican people their “inalienable right to self-determination”. It ended with the line: “We hope not to have to act drastically… we will remain attentive and never let pass an opportunity for peace.”
“I have great respect for them” said one female student at the event. “They are fighting to keep the island Corsican and keep the French out. Parents know that their children cannot afford to buy homes here because of the prices being pushed up by these colonists.” Here it is hard to find anyone who disagrees with their tactics.
During the evening various bands and musicians played traditional Corsican music, with lyrics in their native langauge. In recent years there have been some concessions from the French to help conserve the Corsican language, Lyvia insists that the powers to protect this unique part of their identity should be in the hands of Corsicans. The language, while still spoken by around 60% of people, has been demoted to a secondary position. Almost all media is through the French medium; even in the University of Corsica - an institution which the Corsicans fought for years to get reopened after it was shutdown by the French – it is noticeable just how many students use French to converse amongst themselves outside of lectures.
“The only way to save our language is to co-officialise it in administration. No official papers are produced in Corsican even though the language is used in the Corsican Assembly. A few months ago the Corsican Assembly voted on a motion which contained such ideas to aid in the preservation of the language but we need it to be passed in the French parliament. Surely we know what is best for our own language”
Discussing the possibility of Corsican Independence, Lyvia says that a lot of groundwork needs to be put in before it becomes a realistic proposal.
“If we all woke up in the morning and Corsica was independent, it would not be economically viable.” she said
“But a gradual period of easing towards independence where we obtain more powers over our own economy and manage to build on what we have, I believe that will lead to a very strong state. We of all people know our nations strengths and weaknesses and we can make the most informed decisions on what path the country should take.”
As an island nation, Corsica was better able to preserve its unique identity than other regions of France and its promotion remains a key objective to nationalists. The building of political support for Corsican nationalism, the growing support for independence and the disillusionment among young people with the political establishment means that in the not too distant future, Corsica, along with the Basque Country and Catalonia, could be one of Europe's newest nation states.
- This article first appeared in the July 2012 edition of Iris - The Republican Magazine
- Please note: The FLNC called a permanent ceasefire in the summer of 2014