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Home > World

Corisca vs. the French: What's their beef?

Corsica's world famous cheese festival is held at the end of April... December sees locals kicking up their heels to the oldest and most important festival - honouring the chestnut... you can sample the delights of chestnut fritters and cake... [and] smoked pork from wild pigs who dine on the chestnuts...

- Corsican Tourism Information

19 July 2003

'Honouring the chestnut' might sound like a euphemism for something a Victorian Keely Hawes might do but in Corsica it's wise to pay respec' to the small savoury nuts, integral as they are to the local food chain. (Corsicans also make chestnut beer).

Chestnuts aside, Corsica is better known for briefly hitting the headlines recently after eight Corsican nationalists got hefty jail sentences for killing Claude Erignac, France's top official on the island, back in 1998.

The attack, in which Erignac was shot three times in the head in a busy street, was one of the most notorious in 20 years of political violence, mainly instigated by the Corsican National Liberation Front, which periodically attacks French government officials and buildings

At the Corsicans' trial (which is being held in Paris), relatives shouted "Freedom!" while others raised their fists and began singing the Corsican national song (presumably about chestnuts). One of the defendants shouted "Long live the struggle!"

So what's their beef?

Unsurprisingly, it's a nationalist one. Corsica is part of France, although the island has a solid track record of being invaded by other people. The Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Goths and Moors have all stomped around the little island, collecting chestnuts as they went.

More recently the Genoese (Italians) ruled Corsica, between the 1400s and the 1700s, until a nationalist rebellion led to the creation of a Corsican republic in 1755. Not for long though - the French invaded in 1769.

Nowadays Corsica, population 260,000, is one of France's least developed regions and receives large subsidies from Paris. Farming and fishing in particular are fairly fucked. Tourism is an important part of the island's economy, but has never been developed properly. And this economic disenchantment goes some way to explaining why independence appeals to some Corsicans.

As political boffin Montserrat Guibernau writes: 'Nationalist movements have emerged in deprived areas. Corsican nationalism is a case in point. In these circumstances nationalists tend to provide an explanation for the nation's backwardness by blaming the state.'

However, there are strong feelings in Corsica that the French have simply neglected the needs of Corsica through indifference and prejudice. Corsicans are often considered lazy by the mainland French, in the same way that we Brits often imagine Spaniards to be. And centralised decision making is a pain in the neck for the Corsicans - a bizarre example is that local teachers have to be appointed from the capital.

But as with any nationalist movement, national identity is a factor as well. Many Corsicans believe they have a distinct identity to mainland France, and want to see the Corsican language preserved or in wider use.

Just recently the French responded to the demand for independence with a referendum - not for independence itself but whether to set up a new national assembly with tax-raising powers and more control over public services.

So far, so Wales. However, the referendum was dogged by a number of problems:

1) Few of the voters understood what reform would mean or how it would work. And while some believed it was a step toward full independence, others felt it was giving in to terrorism.

2) The vote was somewhat skewed by the fact that 40% of Corsicans are employed directly by the French state, and there were fears among many bureaucrats that the creation of a new assembly would mean the loss of jobs.

3) There is a strong suspicion in mainland France that many Corsicans voted against the plan simply to annoy the French authorities.

There was a 60 per cent turnout, and the result was a very narrow decision against setting up a new assembly. Shortly after the result was announced, four villas belonging to French people were blown up.

And thatís about it: nationalism as a response to economic problems. What an old chestnut.


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