Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Corsica is an island in the western Mediterranean. According to France’s Culture Ministry, there are 70,000 Corse speakers, as well as 100,000 occasional speakers. The language is influenced by the Genoese dialect of Italian and by Tuscan, which became standard Italian. A distinct version of Genoese is spoken in the town of Bonifacio.
There is a large Corsican diaspora (estimated to be larger than the population of the island itself) working principally in mainland France, although also in the United States and former French colonies. There are around 50,000 French people living in Corsica, and a further 50,000 new immigrants from Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Italy and Portugal. Algerians control the important wine-making industry. Farming and tourism are otherwise the main revenue sources.
Historically, Corsica has at various times fallen under Tuscan rule (1559), declared independence (1755) and been annexed by the French (1769). French was imposed as the only official language of education, the courts and administration, and culture. Corsu survived as an oral language, and Italian was banned. But French had little impact on the majority of the population until compulsory primary education in French was introduced at the beginning of the twentieth century.
In 1962 some 18,000 ‘pieds noirs’ (French former settlers from Algeria) were resettled in Corsica. Many of them became wine growers, and they now control the crucial viticulture industry. The other principal industry on the island is tourism, dominated by large companies.
The Corsican nationalist movement, beginning in the 1960s as a regionalist movement, became increasingly militant. In 1976 the Front de Libération Nationale de la Corse (FLNC – Corsican National Liberation Front) was formed, marking a split between separatists and autonomists in the Corsican nationalist movement. This organization, which took both its name and its programme from the Algerian independence movement, the FLN, demanded independence and the expulsion of the ‘pieds noirs’.
From 1982 the FLNC targeted the ‘continentaux’ – people born in mainland France and living or working in Corsica – claiming responsibility for the destruction of large numbers of holiday homes. Although it was officially disbanded in 1983, the FLNC and its various offshoots, which emerged after an internecine conflict in 1990, have continued violent action to this day, despite a number of ‘ceasefires’. A Cuncolta Naziunalista was established as a legal political front for the FLNC in 1987.
The extension of Corsica’s special regional status in 1991 to give more local power over education only added fuel to the fire. The wording of the law mentioned the Corsican people, although the status of Corsu remained ill-defined, and this appeared to give some legitimacy to independence claims. However, the law was challenged by France’s Constitutional Court, which ruled in 1993 that the law could go into effect provisionally but had to be reviewed after one or two years. It also censured the provision recognizing the existence of a ‘Corsican people, a part of the French people’, significantly weakening the symbolic impact of the law within Corsica. At the same time, it resulted in renewed claims from other linguistic minorities for similar special status. Violence peaked again in the mid-to-late 1990s, including murders of nationalists and the assassination of the Préfet, France’s highest official on the island, in 1998.
In 2000, following lengthy discussions with elected Corsican representatives, the French government proposed the outline for a new special status law which would greatly extend regional powers to areas such as planning, economic development and education. A key feature was the facility to opt out or ‘derogate’ from national laws (although this did not extend power to adopt Corsican laws) under the close supervision of the French parliament in a first experimental phase. The assembly approved this law but the Senate amended it, watering down a number of provisions, notably on the teaching of Corsican in schools to stress its optional nature. The Constitutional Council found the provisions on the experimental power to derogate from national laws contrary to the Constitution.
In a 2003 referendum Corsicans narrowly rejected proposals for the administrative reorganization of the island. Opinions differed as to the meaning of this no vote, as many were believed to have used this occasion to express their opposition to the French government’s policies regarding Corsica. The rejection was also seen as an indication that there was little support for the violence perpetrated by some of the nationalist groups which had played a key role in the negotiations for a new statute.
The Corsican nationalist movement has been reinvigorated in recent years, cemented by the formation of a coalition of nationalist parties, Pe a Corsica (‘For Corsica’). It performed well in the 2015 elections and secured a major victory in the 2017 territorial election, where they won 56.5 per cent of the vote. At present, despite including a party with separatist ambitions, Corsica Libera, its demands have focused not on outright secession but greater autonomy and devolution.
A declining number of young people speak Corsu as their first language despite an increasing use of Corsu in education. Almost all ethnic Corsicans speak French. There is a tendency to use French for formal matters and Corsu at home and in social contexts. One of the key demands of Corsican nationalists, alongside blocks to prevent housing speculation by foreign buyers and the release of those they consider political prisoners, is the equal recognition of Corsican alongside French.
On occasions the tensions around autonomy and nationalist identity have focused on immigrants and ethnic minorities residing on the island. For instance, fighting broke out in the seaside village of Sisco between Corsican villagers and a number of Muslim families in August 2016 after locals reportedly took photos of Muslim swimmers in full-body swimwear, leaving five injured. Riot police had to prevent a crowd of around 200 Corsicans from entering a housing estate with a large number of North African residents, claiming that the building should be seized and given back to the Corsican community. In the wake of these clashes, the mayor of Sisco issued a ban on the wearing of full-body swimwear (also known as ‘burkinis’).
Updated September 2018
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