The birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte has seen a popular uprising against French occupation for decades, but Paris has repeatedly used brute force to suppress the nationalists.
Famous as the Scented Isle among intrepid travellers, Corsica is a rugged, unspoilt region of France with a distinctive character moulded by centuries of invasion and occupation.
Beneath its picture-postcard sceneries, however, runs popular discontent – Corsican separatist groups seeking greater autonomy for the Mediterranean island have led violent flare-ups since the mid-1970s, bombing police stations and administrative buildings that are seen as symbols of French occupation.
Though the militants laid down arms in 2014, unease simmers among the locals, angry over what they see as French discrimination against their language, culture and separate identity.
None of their demands, however, have been taken into consideration by the Paris government so far, including giving official status to the Corsican language.
While the 1990 Charter of Paris for a New Europe unequivocally states that “the rights of persons belonging to national minorities must be fully respected as part of universal human rights,” Corsican people find it hard to exercise fundamental freedoms in the public domain, as the French government has almost always responded to their aspirations with brute force.
This has led to a flare-up in tension and violence – most recently as in March 2022.
Critics often point to the unlawful detention of protesters and use of brute physical force – including alleged killing and maiming inside and outside prisons – by the French authorities to quell public dissent.
The suffering of the island’s natives was highlighted again in late December 2022 when Azerbaijani parliamentarians strongly condemned France for repeated violations of the rights of Corsicans.
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Murder of Corsican hero
The last public uprising in Corsica, one of the Mediterranean’s largest islands, came in the aftermath of a brutal assault on the revered nationalist figure Yvan Colona.
Colona had been serving a life sentence for the assassination of a top French official in 1998 when he was strangled by a fellow inmate. The attack left Colona in a coma, and he passed away a few days later, sparking a public backlash.
The clashes saw protesters targeting government buildings and French symbols, including the country’s national flag, marching under the rallying cry of “statu Francese assassinu” (the French state is an assassin).
Several media reports put the number of injured at over 100, forcing Paris to try and appease the violent crowds. Gerald Darmanin, the French interior minister, even went to the extent of saying: “We are ready to go as far as autonomy – there you go, the word has been said.”
Corsicans and political analysts saw Darmanin’s attempt at appeasement as merely a tactic aimed at taking control of the situation, with the British daily the Financial Times calling the offer of autonomy a short-term countermeasure. Moreover, given that the protests were taking place a few weeks before a crucial presidential election, frontrunner Macron would not have wanted Corsica to make the headlines.
However, this was not the first time the question of Corsica’s autonomy was given thought by the authorities in France. In 2003, a French government proposal to provide the island with greater autonomy saw a closely contested referendum.
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Corsica for Corsicans
Corsica’s increasingly powerful nationalist and independence movements oppose France’s cultural and political dominance over the island of 330,000 people that lies closer to Italy than France.
In fact, French hero Napoleon – born in Corsica in 1769 - came from a family of Italian nobility.
Although under French rule for over two centuries now, Corsica does not “feel French” — not for many Corsicans and not for visitors. It has its own language related to Italian culture.
At the beginning of February 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron visited the island and met with the independence leaders. He recognised that Corsica had a different culture that needed to be preserved but still reaffirmed that the island was at the heart of the Republic.
Before Macron’s visit, thousands of nationalists set the tone for his two-day stay with a peaceful march in the island’s capital Ajaccio to demand democracy and respect for the Corsican people.
Macron’s visit came two months after Corsican nationalists saw an overwhelming historic election victory in December 2017 when the coalition Pè a Corsica (For Corsica) won in the second round of polling with 56.5 percent of the votes. The nationalist alliance was formed two years ago between the autonomist Gilles Simeoni, Corsica executive council president, and the pro-independence Jean-Guy Talamoni, the speaker of the Corsica assembly.
What do Corsicans want?
- More political autonomy: The power to have more say in the affairs of the island is at the heart of the demands of the nationalists. Paris has long refused to budge.
- Pardon for political prisoners: One of the more sensitive topics for Corsican nationalists is the release of political prisoners, with long calling for an amnesty for them.
- Joint-official status for the Corsican language: The nationalists want the Corsican language to be instated as an official language, which means it would be used alongside French within the legal system and on national identity papers.
- Inclusion in the French Constitution: Corsica is not mentioned in the French Constitution, although inclusion is a long-standing demand of the Corsicans.
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