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A troublesome island.

Yvan Colonna, France's most wanted man, was arrested in July 2003. Police found Mr. Colonna hiding in a shepherd's hut in Corsica. He was immediately flown to Paris to join eight other Corsicans on trial for murder.

It is alleged the group conspired to kill Claude Erignac in 1998. Mr. Erignac was the most senior French government official on the island at the time of his murder. His death raised the stakes considerably in the long struggle for independence by some determined Corsicans.

Yvan Colonna, portrayed by his separatist kind of Robin Hood figure, had eluded capture for five years. He was taken into custody just two days before the people of Corsica voted in a referendum on the island's future.

The island of Corsica has had a long and turbulent history. There were Greek settlements on the island in 550 BC and these were overrun by the Romans in 259 BC. The Romans held onto Corsica until the collapse of their empire in 476 AD. Several others came and went until the trading city of Genoa took control in 1312. The Genoese ruled the island until the 18th century, except for the period from 1458 to 1558, when it was held by the French.

In the 18th century, a series of revolts against Genoese rule brought Pasquale Paoli (see sidebar, page 14) to prominence. In 1768, the French bought Corsica from Genoa, an event that had a profound effect on the history of Europe. That's because the year after France became master of Corsica a child was born to Carlo and Letizia Ramolino Buonaparte. The parents were both members of the Corsican-Italian gentry and they named their baby boy, now a French citizen, Napoleon.

At least for part of his early life, young Napoleon hated the French. He later wrote: "I was born when [Corsica] was perishing. Thirty thousand Frenchmen spewed on to our shores, drowning the throne of liberty in waves of blood ... The cries of the dying, the groans of the oppressed and tears of despair surrounded my cradle from the hour of my birth."

The child grew up to be Emperor of France and the conqueror of most of Europe.

The French tried to get the Corsicans to adopt French ways and French culture. The Corsicans preferred to hold on to their own traditions. In 1774, there was a serious Corsican revolt against the French authority on the island. This revolt was met by a program of brutal repression that made the Corsicans more stubborn in their refusal to accept French authority.

During World War II the island was occupied by German and Italian troops. However, Corsicans never liked someone else dominating them, and the island was liberated in late 1943. With peace in 1945, Corsica returned to French rule.

The movement to achieve greater independence from France became active again in Corsica in the 1970s. Eventually, the independence movement turned violent and bombs started going off near government buildings.

But, sympathy for independence is not universal. Corsica is the poorest region of France and receives large subsidies from Paris. Roughly 40 percent of the island's workforce is employed by the government.

In 1982, as part of a decentralization program, the French parliament responded by creating the Corsican Regional Assembly. The assembly, has 50 elected members, controls local spending and has influence over education and culture in Corsica. But, this was not enough for the nationalists.

In 1999, the government in Paris began talks with the separatists. The idea was to settle the island's future once and for all. Those talks resulted in a referendum in July 2003. The people of the island were asked to vote on a proposal that would create a new assembly with greater powers than the existing one. The new assembly would have control over tourism, Corsica's biggest industry, and the environment.

Curiously, both sides appealed to Corsicans to vote "yes" in the referendum.

Paris believed the reform was the best way to ensure that Corsica stayed French. The Corsican nationalists were also keen on a yes vote, seeing the new assembly as the first step towards full independence. In the end, the people rejected the pleas of both sides and voted no by a slim margin (two percent).

The failure to come up with a clear-cut result is the worst of all outcomes. There had been a decline in bombings since talks on greater independence began. The violent fringe of the separatist movement is expected to dig up its hidden boxes of dynamite and start blowing things to smithereens again. This has already started.

On a night in early September 2003, the car of journalist Christine Clerc was machine-gunned. This came a couple of days after she wrote an article in the Paris-based newspaper Le Figaro on the topic of intimidation and crime against non-Corsicans living in the island.

The lukewarm endorsement of continued allegiance to France worries many others. There is a deeply held belief in France that a strong central government that controls the affairs of the regions is good for the country.

France is held together by its centrality, goes the argument. Bound together through Paris, France is able to counter foreign influences such as those from the European Union or the United States. The view also dictates that French regions and citizens are treated equally and none is given powers others haven't got.

If Corsicans get some sort of special deal, then the Bretons in the northwest will start demanding the same. Then perhaps France's Basque people in the southwest will want to join their brothers and sisters in Spain.

There are also mutterings of discontent in Alsace-Lorraine, Flanders, Provence, and Savoy.

Pretty soon, the centralists fear, there might be no France left.

Other countries are watching events in Corsica too.

What if Corsican independence inspired secessionist movements elsewhere to follow suit? "Some countries would be worried about the knock-on effects," says Charles Grant of the Centre for European Reform. "The Spanish would be worried about the Basques and the Catalans, the British would worry about the Scots."


Pasquale di Paoli was born in 1725, the son of a Corsican clan chief. Corsica was ruled by Genoa, against whom Pasquale took up arms in 1755. He was given command of the Corsican revolt against Genoa and soon had the occupiers on the run. Before long, the Genoese only had control of a few fortified, coastal towns.

Pasquale Paoli was declared President of Corsica in 1757 and governed most of the island from a capital in the town of Corte. By all accounts, he was a good ruler who introduced many liberal reforms. He brought in a democratic constitution at a time when such an innovation was almost unheard of. He suppressed the clan feuding, cut the powers of feudal lords, opened schools, and established a university.

In 1768, the French took over Corsica and proved to be harder fighters than the Genoese. In 1769, Paoli fled to England. He was received by the king and the British gave him a hefty pension.

A dozen years later, the French were in a forgiving mood and invited Paoli to return to Corsica as Governor. He didn't much like the methods of France's Emperor Napoleon so he declared Corsican independence in 1793.

The British helped him defeat the French in 1794 but then made Corsica a British protectorate. Instead of allowing Paoli to rule, the British put one of their own in charge and recalled Paoli to England, where he remained until his death in 1807.

In 1796, the Corsicans drove the British out with French aid.


One of Pasquale di Paoli's secretaries had been Carlo Buonaparte, father of Napoleon.


During the 14th century, two thirds of Corsica's population died from the Black Plague.


Corsican society is divided by clans, and these don't always get along with each other. Outsiders have learned to exploit the tradition of clan rivalry and blood feuds. By stirring up ancient hatreds and grudges, occupiers of Corsica have been able to keep the islanders busy fighting each other. Today's separatist movement is by no means united. There are several groups, some violent, some not. The more extreme elements spend a fair bit of time fighting each other and they carry on vendettas that can last for generations. Experts say there are many similarities between the lawlessness of some separatists and that of organized crime.

One of the world's legendary Mafia figures is from Corsica. Jean-Baptiste Colonna was jailed in 1975 as the suspected mastermind behind the infamous French Connection drug ring. Recently, the man the French government calls the Godfather of Corsica broke decades of silence and gave an interview to a magazine writer. In the interview he paints a picture of the Corsica that few outsiders see: an island where gang warfare and separatist violence go hand-in-hand; honour, duty, and vengeance are deadly serious matters; bombs, arson, and machine-gun attacks average one a day; and assassinations regularly top 30 a year.

What many people fear is that if Corsica becomes independent it will be run by people such as Jean-Baptiste Colonna.


The French people sometimes grimly joke that if France held a referendum on Corsican independence, the French on the mainland would vote yes and the Corsicans would vote no.
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Title Annotation:Stateless Peoples--Corsica
Publication:Canada and the World Backgrounder
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Oct 1, 2003
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