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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Independence Unlikely For Tiny Corsica

AJACCIO, France -- Practically everywhere you drive in Corsica, the little island that nestles in the Mediterranean off the south coast of France, you see slogans daubed on walls and traffic signs. "Liberty for the patriots!" some slogans declare; "Free the Corsican nation!" proclaim others. These slogans are written not in French but in what, to the semi-trained eye, looks rather like Italian. In fact, the language is Corsican, and the slogans are demanding the release of political activists who have been jailed for Corsican nationalist violence. Is there such a thing as the Corsican nation, so distinct from the French that it deserves its own independent European state? Or should we think of the Corsicans as we think of the Basques in Spain or the Welsh in Britain, different enough to justify special status but not so different that they merit a separate seat in the European Union or the United Nations? On questions like this the future shape of Europe will turn. No one who knows Paris and the rest of France can dispute that there is something different about Corsica. French may be the most widely spoken language on the island, but many inhabitants converse in Corsican. They number less than half a million -- that is to say, less than 1 percent of the total population of France -- but their customs and demeanor mark them out as a distinct people. At the same time, even the Corsicans would likely accept that complete independence in today's Europe is an unrealistic dream. The island is heavily dependent on mainland France for imports of food and other basic products, and from the security point of view Corsica is a tiny fish in a sea of heavily armed states. Yet the Corsicans undoubtedly resent the tradition of centralizing rule from Paris, much as small peoples in central Russia and far-flung parts of Siberia do not like being under the thumb of Moscow. The other week I stayed at an inn in the mountains of central Corsica where, late at night, the "patron" donned a face mask and fired gunshots into the air. From a neighboring mountainside, gunshots sounded back in sympathy. It was all done in fun, but it carried the message: We may be part of France, we may be governed from Paris, but we are not entirely French. In the early 1980s, the authorities in Paris introduced a reform that granted a fair degree of autonomy to Corsica. It was a sensible measure, and one, incidentally, that the island's most famous son, Napoleon Bonaparte, would likely have condemned. Just as the Georgian Stalin and the Austrian Hitler turned out to be a Great Russian and a Great German, so Napoleon was a Great Frenchman rather than a defender of Corsican rights. It seems, therefore, that the best hope for Corsicans who want to preserve and develop their identity is to push for some sort of special status, but not independence, within the EU. In this endeavor, they will hope for support not just from the Basques and the Welsh but perhaps from stronger regional peoples such as the Bavarians in Germany and the Italians of Lombardy and the Venice area. Whether the Corsicans will succeed is doubtful. For one thing, they are not very numerous and not very powerful. But most importantly, an extremist minority of Corsican nationalists continues to attack public buildings and holiday homes. As long as they do, Europe's sympathy for Corsica will be limited.