Corsican flag. Wikimedia/public domain.
The rise of the armed struggle
On the night of 22 August 1975, a group of some twenty men, headed by the Action Régionale Corse (ARC) leader, Edmond Siméoni, occupied a pied noir’s vineyard in Aléria on the eastern coast of Corsica. The occupation of the vineyard aimed to condemn the alleged financial corruption of its owner, Henri Depeille, who – like many other pieds noirs (French settlers in Algeria) – had benefited from the French state’s extensive land redistribution after Algeria’s independence. The government had also favoured pied noirs in its distribution of land subsidies, further marginalising Corsican farmers. The occupation was inflamed by the deployment over the following days of armoured cars, helicopters and twelve hundred men from the Compagnie Républicaine de Sécurité (CRS), the state security police forces.
The ensuing confrontation resulted in the death of two CRS men and the serious wounding of a member of the ARC. Soon after, the ARC was disbanded and Simeoni was sentenced to five years in prison. These events would be the catalyst for 40 years of conflict, most notably between the Front de Libération Nationale Corse (FLNC) and the French state.
In the 1980s, the right-wing Interior Minister Charles Pasqua (who was of Corsican origin), led a clear policy of repression in the island with mass arrests and convictions, as well as a heavy police ground presence. This approach was toned down with the arrival of a socialist government in 1986 and Pierre Joxe as the new Minister of Interior, who intrinsically believed in a political resolution to the conflict.
In negotiating with elected Corsican representatives and clandestine nationalists, the French government adopted a selective policy of dialogue. It prioritised the FLNC Historique (which seceded from its other FLNC half in 1990), which divided the nationalist camp. This would contribute to disastrous fratricidal wars within the nationalist movement.
'There was a group of capable people, but they killed each other'
Broadly, the armed struggle lost its potential for three reasons.
First, and somewhat paradoxically, because the movement gained increasing popularity in the 1980s it struggled to organise and sustain itself. Many new recruits joined the movement, particularly in the midst of the repression period, which led to to fragmentation, disorganisation and a gulf in the political vision.
Pantaléon Alessandri, one of the founders of the FLNC, states:
‘At the beginning, we said, left wing, right wing, it doesn’t matter, let’s not talk about it, and we will see when we win. But we quickly realised that at some point, it is necessarily to take into account political affiliations ….To not divide the nationalist movement, we should have organised in political affiliations. And here … it has to be about power relations … and that’s what Corsica is about, too.’
As the movement grew, it inevitably needed more funding. In 1982, the FLNC created the impôt revolutionnaire (revolutionary tax), which consisted of a tax extracted from local businesses with a promise for protection in return. Some refused. As seen in the Sperone scandal, when the owner of the Sperone resort refused to pay the four million francs of the revolutionary tax ‘owed’ to the FLNC in 1996, the FLNC attacked the luxury property.
Although the FLNC claimed that these attacks were justified on the grounds that they were fighting (the very real) financial corruption in Corsica, for many the nationalists were degenerating into a mafia-type movement.
Secondly, the clandestine nationalist movement over the years lost touch with the people it aimed to mobilise in its struggle for independence. Alessandri explains the creation of the FLNC with the very limited means it had back in 1975. Militants acquired access to arms in the cache of weapons left after the Second World War. They wore jeans and hardly covered their faces. They did not want to display arms, positioning themselves as a ‘political’ movement.
Yet the movement, according to him, ‘professionalised’. Leaders acquired increasingly sophisticated arms, which they gratuitously used as a show of force – notably in the Tralonca conference on 12 January 1996, where about 600 hooded militants were brought together in a display of arms to announce a three month truce.
‘What I blame today’s movements for, such as the IRA, ETA, or FLN - in the end, they all behaved the same way - is the creation of a clandestine movement based on a Stalinist model, where the party dominates and manages everything. There was an enlightened vanguard that would fight, but in some ways, at a certain moment, you have to call on people to fight. And these clandestine movements, because they wanted to control everything from A to Z, they stopped calling on people. Because when we call on people, people fight. But the problem with people is that we don’t know what the result will be. And a revolution, we don’t know how it starts, neither why, sometimes, we don’t know at the expense of who it is, and we don’t know what there will be at the end’.
Finally, fratricidal war in the 1990s completed the armed movement’s downfall. Violence was no longer a means to struggle for independence aimed at state infrastructure, but rather a mere tool for private justice and the settling of scores. This came as a direct result of the state’s above-mentioned policy of division, leading every group to claim that it was the entitled spokesperson vis-à-vis the state.
The FLNC went through a crisis over whether to continue the armed struggle and during the 90s around twenty nationalists were killed by their supposed brethren. Alessandri puts it bluntly: 'There was a group of capable people, but they killed each other’.
This situation of thirst for personal power, internal divisions and confusion culminated in the Prefect Erignac's infamous murder in 1998, an incident that highlighted the situation of absolute confusion in the world of the nationalists during the 90s and led to what Poggioli calls an ‘unbearable pre-mafia situation’.
Finally, in 1998, the Prefect (representative of the state in French regions) was murdered by an anonymous group for his cooperation with the government's policy of division on the island. Erignac’s murder caused special indignation in Corsican society and more generally amongst French people. It was the first time a representative of the state had suffered such treatment in France since the Second World War. Following Erignac’s murder, 40,000 Corsicans demonstrated out of a population of 240,000. The situation was no longer acceptable.
'We won the battle of ideas'
This history is often forgotten or glossed over, yet the story of the Corsican struggle matters in its own right and as an insight into how a political movement can erupt into armed conflict and how the path to peace is often complex and multilayered. Despite this history of crisis within the armed nationalist movement, more and more elected representatives and Corsicans today support autonomy for the island. Indeed, the autonomy claims put forward by the nationalist party, Corsica Nazione, and Corsica Libera have, in recent decades, become increasingly mainstream.
Jean-Guy Talamoni, leader of Corsica Libera, states that ‘[w]e see ideas that belonged to nationalists, that are today shared by Corsican political elites and by a majority of Corsican people. We won the battle of ideas.’
For example, nationalists asked to discuss the amnesty of Corsican political prisoners, notably those responsible for the Prefect’s murdering in 1998. The recent vote on the matter came to 48 elected representatives in favour of opening discussions out of 51 in the Corsican assembly.
Furthermore, in efforts towards decentralisation, the French president, François Hollande, has recently accepted merging the two Corsican departments into one region. Although the relationship with the mainland is still far from straightforward, elected representatives constantly encourage the state's initiatives. Nicolas Sarkozy recently spoke about the possibility of including Corsica in the French constitution, an idea long advocated by Corsica Libera.
In addition to increased support from the political elite for what used to be fringe claims, the wider population has also supported these initiatives. In contrast to nationalist movements such as the Bretons in Brittany, young people in Corsica are increasingly sympathetic to autonomist claims – often to the dissatisfaction of older generations.
Elected representatives on the ground have estimated a large majority of young people to be in autonomist movement, while Xavier Crettiez argues that these people are challenging traditional elites embedded in clientelism - where favours are traded for votes between Corsicans and their elected representatives.
How can we explain this after the bloodshed of the armed struggle? Maybe because Corsicans have refused the means used by the likes of the FLNC, but not the ends. Hence autonomy is conceivable under different terms, as the FLNC’s recent formal abandoning of the armed struggle suggests.
In a hyper-centralised French state, inherited from the absolutist monarchy, the desire for the recognition of a special status for Corsica is increasingly popular. Similar to the Catalan region in Spain, where the results of the recent parliamentary elections gave much support to pro-independence parties, the French state will have to adopt a new approach to the question when the voice of the people makes itself heard – notably in the upcoming regional elections in Corsica this December.
The armed struggle for Corsican independence reached its limits as it drifted into a mafia type situation at the end of the 1990s and lost sight of its political goal. The impacts of factionalism, personal feuds and division will be familiar to those who have looked, for instance, at the complex history of the IRA. Yet while violence has been widely rejected by Corsicans, the story is not over and the hunger for autonomy is growing. While the means for claiming autonomy have changed, those claims remain intact, and the 'Corsican question' is yet to be resolved.