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Two Centuries of French Political Regimes
Corsican History

Corsica – a national question?

Many of the debates about Corsica don’t in fact grapple with the real problem, which is to know whether a Corsican national question really exists. In this article Daniel Desmé* shows how Corsican national identity has survived two centuries of rule from Paris and asserts the Corsican people’s right to self-determination.

To think of Corsica as an oppressed nation seems incongruous to many observers, even those who are best-informed and least inclined to imperialist attitudes. How can a country, so close to our shores, which enjoys the same civil rights as continental France, which gave it an emperor, whose sons occupied such a big place in the French administration and gave so many officers and soldiers to the colonial army, be anything other than French? And consequently, its inhabitants anything other than French?

I will start with some historical elements, not because the Corsica of 1769 is identical to the Corsica of today, but to highlight some of the factors that have contributed to establishing Corsican national identity. Nations are a complex phenomenon, in which economic, social and ideological elements intertwine and merge in the course of the ongoing historical process. As Engels remarked, although the economy has a central role in social relations, other elements also play their role.

In the case of Corsica and its relations with the French state, history weighs heavily in the balance – a history of violent oppression, marked by every kind persecution and by contempt for the Corsican people.


It was in the course of the 18th century that the Corsican nation was forged, in the modern sense of the term, in the struggle first of all against Genoa and than against France. In 1755, at the Consulta of Casabianca, the representatives of the people adopted a modern constitution. It asserted national sovereignty and organised the separation of powers and the election of a national representative assembly with the power to raise taxes, pass laws and declare war, elected by all citizens over 25, including women. The assembly elected an executive, the Supreme Council, which was the government. The head of the government was directly elected by the assembly, which kept the name of Consulta. One of the first decisions was to create the University of Corte to train the future cadres of the nation. It was no doubt not a model of absolute democracy. Pasquale de Paoli, elected General of the Fatherland, enjoyed enormous power. And it was largely the leading citizens who were elected. That was the case with all the first national assemblies, in the United States as well as in France, whose first constitution instituted a property-based suffrage and excluded women. Corsica was in advance as far as that was concerned.

The King of France didn’t want an independent Corsica, for strategic reasons in the Mediterranean, and even less a democratic Corsica. The war was merciless. At the same time Paoli had to face, internally, the resistance of local nobles whose only thought was to consolidate their existing privileges and sinecures and acquire new ones, and the power of the clans who wanted their share of power, if not the whole power. He fought ferociously against the traditional Corsican feud, the vendetta (“vengeance”) (1), instituting and applying the death penalty against those who engaged in it. So it was through an external struggle against the monarchy and an internal struggle against the remains of the old Corsican society, that Corsica under Paoli entered into the modern history of nations. And it was by the coalition of these internal and external forces that it perished, outnumbered and defeated militarily by the French royal army at Ponte Novo in May 1769.

What followed was a period of ferocious “pacification” conducted by the Comte de Marboeuf and the Comte de Narbonne. Those who resisted were hanged, broken on the wheel, sent to the fortress of Toulon where the water was waist-high. Villages and crops were burnt. The full arsenal of repression was brought out at the least sign of disobedience. The popular revolt was crushed.

At the same time, the government courted the leading citizens, even the turncoats like the Bonaparte family, and granted lands to the French officers who had taken part in the campaign. The administration took measures that quite markedly transformed the rural landscape: enclosures, creation of big landed estates, development of crops that were useful for France rather than for the survival of the native population (the planting and cultivation of chestnut trees, which provided the staple diet in the countryside, was forbidden). All these measures penalised traditional mountain agriculture, and especially the shepherds whose right to pasturage was curtailed. Furthermore, the Corsican merchants had their right to trade limited, royal ships had a monopoly of trade between Corsica and the continent, customs duties that favoured France were introduced. Social conflicts grew more acute. A form of colonial rule was installed.

As a result when the French Revolution broke out in 1789 it found fertile soil among the Corsican people. Freedom and the recovery of their rights seemed within reach.


By a decree of 30 November 1789, it was declared that Corsica was “an integral part of the French Empire and that its inhabitants would be governed by the same Constitution as the rest of the French people”. But there was no referendum in Corsica on the question, as there was for example in the Comtat Vénaissin (2). At the same time an amnesty was decreed for all those who had fought for freedom under the Ancien Régime. Paoli could now return. He was received and acclaimed by the French Constituent Assembly. But, as the Corsican historian J. Defranceschi has pointed out, “the majority of Corsicans sincerely accepted union, only the idea they had of it was profoundly different from the prevailing one”. Paoli understood that his little country needed a protector power that would guarantee its freedom. In his eyes this power should be revolutionary France. On the whole, as Defranceschi explains, Paoli’s idea of union was of a federal or rather confederal kind. When speaking of nations, he distinguished “ours” from the “French”. It is ironic to recall that such a confederal perspective was put forward by Robespierre himself during the reception for Paoli at the National Assembly. It was not followed up.

The agrarian question blew this union apart and was the cause of serious troubles, which were used by Paoli’s enemies to have him declared a traitor to the Revolution, who had sold out to the English. The French Assembly, in deciding to sell off Crown lands, continued the policy begun under the Ancien Regime, of breaking up communally-owned lands and selling them to private owners. The rural population had expected that the Revolution would give the village communities back the lands that had been confiscated by the royal administration. Instead of which, they were added to the Crown lands and put on sale. And in the big majority of cases these they were sold to the anti-Paolist leading citizens. This policy was continued all through the 19th century.

The English, called in by Paoli to help, were no more sympathetic to what the Corsicans wanted. Paoli’s idea was that Corsica would be rather like what the Dominions later became, independent but under the protection of the British Crown. However, the British Viceroy, Eliott, sharply denounced Paoli’s democratic practices and the Corsicans’ desire for independence, which left little role for himself. Paoli had to go into exile again, this time definitively. The Anglo-Corsican kingdom quickly proved to be a failure and France re-conquered the island.


In 1801 – after having declared the year before that the French Constitution didn’t apply to Corsica – Napoleon appointed General Morand to “pacify” the island again. Morand got down to work and boasted of executing a Corsican every day. There had been countless rebellions and revolts during the second half of the 1790s. Morand’s merciless repression put a stop to these local revolts.

On the economic level, The French administration continued to dismantle communal lands and maintained the same discriminatory policies as the monarchy. Duties were imposed on Corsican products exported to the Continent, while imports from France were duty free. These measures were only officially lifted in 1912. Napoleon also demanded that conscription be enforced “by any and every means”. He justified the division of Corsica into two departments, in order to stir up discord and rivalry. He also recommended bringing the Corsican elite to France and sending French functionaries to Corsica. From every point of view, real colonial rule was introduced.

After the fall of the emperor, the policies conducted under the Restoration remained basically unchanged, minus the mass repression, which had become unnecessary. The main target of repression in the 19th century was the phenomenon of banditry – partly a result of peasant poverty, partly “real” banditry and partly a more or less conscious revolt against the “well-off” and the established order.

The 19th century witnessed a contrasted situation. The population almost doubled by 1880, in spite of very high infantile mortality, and subsequently sharply declined. The economy took off somewhat: new roads were built and existing ones renovated, though the main reason was strategic – to combat banditry and police the population. Ports were developed, there was an increase in the urban population. There was a slow and modest but real beginning of industrial development, with shipyards and foundries and there were changes in agricultural methods. But this development couldn’t resist the competition with continental industry. The Foundries were closed down after 1870: in any case they were owned by French capitalists.

The economic development that continued under the Third Republic, led to an accentuation of the social divisions between on the one hand the sgio, the “masters”, the leading citizens - big rural landowners, the urban bourgeoisie - and on the other the small peasants, the shepherds, the poor of the towns. On the one hand there was a certain comfort, albeit modest, on the other, grinding poverty. All the more so as such development as there was, was taking place to their detriment. Thus, the abolition of common land and free grazing for cattle was one of the constant themes of French policy in Corsica.


A process of “Francisation” was begun from the time of the royal conquest in 1769. But it accelerated sharply from the middle of the 19th century, especially under the Third Republic. It had several aspects. The first was cultural. Up until then the language of the intellectual elites had in the main been Italian. They studied in Italian universities, notably in Tuscany. Gradually a dual process developed. On the one hand higher education took place in France and the intellectuals began to write in French. At the same time the national language, Corsican, which was essentially oral and spoken by the people, began to be written.

The establishment of universal primary education was a decisive factor in the penetration of French, accompanied as in other regions by banning the use of the national language in school. Corsican was designated as a patois, a provincial dialect. Denigrating the language of the people was one of the ways that the French asserted the legitimacy of their own rule. But the French language also became necessary, because of the need for the children of the lower classes to find a job. French became the vehicle of upward social mobility via the administration and the army. But the national language continued to be spoken on a day-to-day basis. So a large part of the population became bilingual.

The economic situation briefly described above led to emigration, encouraged by the central government with the complicity of the clans. For many Corsicans, entry into the civil service was the only road out of poverty. The Corsicans being reputed for their warlike qualities, one solution was to join the army (3). It was in this period that the integration of part of the Corsican people into the French state on a large scale began. The 1914-18 war, with the scale of its sacrifices and Corsica’s percentage of deaths higher than the average for France, continued the process.

The clans have always played their cards carefully in order to maintain a privileged political position. Some were Bonapartist with Bonaparte, others royalist under the Restoration. After 1870 a deal was struck between the French state and the clans to consolidate the Republic. The state relied on the clan for the maintenance of a minimum of civil peace, in exchange leaving it a free hand as far as internal politics were concerned. The clan, dispenser of public hand-outs, used and abused this situation. The clan leader Arène became famous for making and unmaking prefects and for appointing his own clan members to positions in the island’s administration. The state turned a blind eye to electoral fraud, and to much else besides. That was the price to pay for maintaining its rule. This situation has continued to exist up until the present day. It has been a powerful factor of stagnation on the island. And it has largely contributed to the widespread feeling that the French state doesn’t even respect its own laws, that it farms out its right to govern. The top levels of the administration of the island itself are seen as a more or less foreign imposition. The whole rotten set-up puts the Corsican people in a situation of total submission, subject to a concentration of economic and political power, since they have to go through the clan to get a job or to receive state subsidies.

After the defeat of Napoleon III at Sedan in 1870, there was a real wave of racism against Corsicans, accused of all the evils of the defeat. One commentator advocated “giving Corsica back to Italy for one franc”. A certain professor Henri Hauser proposed “making the administration of Corsica as far as possible of a colonial type”. The press was full of the usual hackneyed anti-Corsican jibes – they were all lazy, bandits, etc.

Part of public opinion in Corsica became irritated by this situation. Corsicans were being constantly run down, while at the same time, in spite of all the promises, the social and economic situation continued to stagnate. A certain amount of agitation developed around 1910. The municipal council of Ajaccio sent out an address in which it recalled “with pride and emotion that Pascal Paoli achieved the centuries-old dream of our compatriots, to make the island an independent country governed by a national constitution”. The magazine A Cispra began to appear, advocating home rule: “We have to push back Francisation. We must ask for recognition of the Corsican nation (…) All Corsicans must aim for an autonomous Corsica, an independent nation with its language, its laws, a separate government…Corsica is a conquered nation that has to be reborn”. Even though these sentiments were those of a minority, they showed that part of the population no longer believed in fine speeches from Paris and in the possibility of having a free and happy life in association with France.


The results of the Great War changed the picture. The sacrifice Corsicans had made for France appeared as the gateway to social and political integration into France - a reward or compensation for the blood that had been spilt (4). But it was the young who had perished. Corsica was bled dry. To many the only solution seemed to be integration into France through emigration, by the traditional administrative-military route. But this solution, the result of the difficult internal economic situation, itself reinforced the decline of the island’s population and economy.

In this context, it was difficult to assert a separate Corsican identity. A newspaper founded by some intellectuals, A Muvra, defended Corsican identity on the cultural level. Out of this grew the Corsican Party of Action. Already a minority, the movement lost influence because of its internal political differences and definitively disqualified itself when part of its leadership came out for attachment to Italy and supported Mussolini. This provoked a backlash: there was a mass demonstration in Bastia and the Oath of Bastia was widely taken up - ”In the face of the world, with all our heart and soul (…)we swear to live and die French”. For many years, the ideas of Corsican identity and autonomy were to a heavy price for the way the movement had gone off the rails in the 1930s.


During the war some of the clans played the game of Vichy, others opted for the Gaullist Resistance. But in the Resistance, the dominant force, in fact the only real organised force, was the Communist Party. At the end of the war, the clans took power back into their hands again, trying to heal their divisions by uniting against the CP, which led them to share out the electoral spoils among themselves. Nothing fundamentally changed until the 1950s.

Several important factors then intervened to shake up the situation. First of all there was the retreat from the colonies, with the end of the Indo-China War in 1954, then the Algerian uprising and the granting of independence in 1962. Decolonisation was a very important factor because it cut off an outlet for employment. Furthermore, for young people in particular it sparked off a process of reflection about the legitimacy and the effectiveness of revolt.

Then there was the Treaty of Rome that set up the Common Market in 1957 and the advent of the Fifth Republic in 1958. France adopted a policy of intensive “modernisation” aimed at competing in the European and then world market. But this meant a head-on collision with the traditional organisation of the Corsican economy, based on small farms and cottage industry, and led to loss of employment. The change in the economic situation provided fertile ground for the renaissance of national identity and the national movement.

The French government set up a regional action plan with a view to developing the island, accompanied by institutions to carry out the plan such as SOMIVAC, a mixed society responsible for the development of agriculture in Corsica. There was certainly a relative improvement in economic activity, with the development of vineyards, cultivation of citrus fruits, new building and tourism, for example. But it didn’t benefit everyone in equal measure. What lit the fuse was once again the agricultural question. The SOMIVAC, which had acquired and improved the lands of the eastern plain, should normally have sold them to Corsican farmers. But the massive arrival of French settlers repatriated from North Africa changed the situation. The state did everything to it could to help them settle in Corsica. The biggest landholdings were given to the returned settlers, while the Corsicans only got the smallest holdings, most of the time through lack of financial means. Which is absolutely logical in a capitalist economy.

Furthermore, a number of things made the Corsicans realise how little the French state cared about them. The projected centre of nuclear experiments on the Argentella site was seen as a provocation by a people strongly attached to its land. And the state remained passive in the face of the dumping in the Mediterranean of polluting red mud by the Italian Montedison company. Both of these questions gave rise to mass mobilisations in Corsica.

To complete the picture, in 1970 the government commissioned a confidential report from the Hudson Institute, with a view to working out a scheme of development for Corsica. There were some realistic points in this report, for example: “The French treat Corsica as a bit of a joke, they tell Corsican jokes, but they aren’t really interested in the place (…) A large majority of the Corsican population feels a growing sentiment of frustration”. The conclusion of the report, which advocated the massive development of tourism as the only realistic solution, offered two basic choices: “Either speed up the disappearance of Corsican identity by encouraging massive new immigration (…) or maintain and restore Corsican cultural identity and traditions and develop the potential of the island in that context”.

The publication of the report by the ARC (Corsican Regional Action) in November 1971 gave a boost to the national movement. The question of developing large-scale tourism would come up again and again and was strongly challenged by some sectors of Corsican society because of the danger of private enterprise taking over Corsica’s protected coastline, the inevitable development of property speculation and the possibilities for recycling money that was not always very clean. For the same reasons, other sectors were in favour of it.

With these large-scale economic and social transformations, part of the Corsican people, small peasants, white-collar workers, intellectuals, began to mobilise and became the spearhead of the nationalist organisations. It was only in the middle of the 1980s that the national movement, or at least part of its cadres, built a trade union organisation, the Corsican Workers’ Union (STC), which rapidly became the main union in the private sector and established a strong base among public sector workers. Economic demands were more and more complemented by cultural ones: use of the national language, demand for the reopening of the university of Corte, closed down after the French conquest in 1769 (it was reopened in the early 1980s), literary output, revival of traditional songs, etc.

Today the situation is extremely complicated. The French government is in no way seeking to recognise the Corsican people, but just to give the island a slightly more flexible form of regional government. It boils down to managing unequal development in the framework of integration into Europe.

What happens next is not pre-ordained. It will depend on the relationship of forces in Corsica and also on linking up with anti-capitalist and emancipatory forces in France and indeed in Europe.


National questions are eminently political questions, in which the subjective factor, the will to take one’s destiny into one’s own hands, is essential, especially in the case of oppressed nations.

For oppressed peoples, the right to self-determination is “a democratic and not a socialist principle. But genuinely democratic principles are supported and realised in our era only by the revolutionary proletariat” (5). The task of revolutionaries is to turn the social content of this democratic demand in a socialist direction. So within the movement for self-determination, we have to fight for the kind of society we want, in opposition to the economic and social aims of those sections of the bourgeoisie who defend national rights. But the struggle for self-determination cannot be subordinated to the character of the leadership that the movement might have at a given moment.

Waiting for ideal conditions to appear to decide the type of relations there should be between Corsica and the French state would just be a very bad way of putting off indefinitely the exercise of the right to self-determination. We can‚t wait for socialism, or even for successful economic development. What kind of economic development could there be under the present system? Anyway, it's up to the Corsican people to choose the ends and the means of economic development. Which presupposes that it has the political means to do so. The exercise of the right to self-determination requires the widest possible democracy. Sovereignty, if it is not to be confiscated by factions of the bourgeoisie or technocrats in their service, has to be popular sovereignty.

The crucial question is the recognition in law of the Corsican people as a political entity. The Corsican people can only decide how to organise itself and what links it wants with other nations, other states, if its right to do so is recognised. Failing which, this recognition will be imposed by a struggle, which has been the case with practically all national liberation movements. The Constitutional Council in Paris, which guarantees the imperialist rights of the French state, has steadily refused to recognise the existence of the Corsican people, because to do so would open the way to the right to self-determination.

In theory, the right to self-determination is an integral part of international law. In fact it is subject to the changing interests of the imperialist countries. It was very useful for dismantling the Soviet Union, it is less urgent for the Chechen people, and is often simply denied, as the Kurdish people learned by bitter experience after the First World War.

Independence doesn’t necessarily mean isolation, which would be suicidal in the present world situation. The fact that small countries, including bigger ones than Corsica, are not economically independent is a problem, and a serious problem, in a world dominated by imperialism. The conclusion to be drawn is that the struggle for self-determination has to be carried over into a struggle against capitalism.

There are forms of co-operation which can be advantageous: “Politically, it is not at all a question of whether it is advantageous ‘in general’ for various nationalities to live together within the framework of a single state, but rather it is a question of whether or a particular nationality has, on the basis of her own experience, found it advantageous to adhere to a given state” (6). On condition that it is made clear that such a choice doesn’t at all negate the right of self-determination of the nationality in question, and that the forms of co-operation or union with a state are not set in stone once and for all.

Once it is accepted that it is indeed for the Corsican people to decide on its internal organisation and its links with other states, voices will certainly be raised asking, quite rightly, who is included in this “Corsican people”. The answer can only be political: all those, whether of Corsican origin or not, who want to take part in the future destiny of the Corsican people.


The arguments against the exercise of the right to self-determination, or for limiting it, are of very different kinds. For some, the right to self-determination is an intolerable attack on the unity of France. So it is in the name of French nationalism that the rights of the Corsican people are denied. A more subtle approach is to recognise the specificity of Corsica, not because it is an oppressed nation but because of its insular nature and the problems it faces. The result is the same. Out goes the right to self-determination, which is seen as representing an attack on the French nation. When this nation is identified with the Enlightenment, the Republic and the Rights of Man, such an attack can only be motivated by obscurantism...

On the left, other kinds of fears are raised. The first is the fear of a loss of social rights. That is a real danger. But who can believe that the French state can guarantee these rights, when the government itself constantly attacks them? Only the mobilisation of the working class, in Corsica just as in France, can prevent the dismantling of these rights. And Corsican workers have shown on a number of occasions that they know how to strongly defend their rights.

There is also fierce opposition to obligatory teaching of the Corsican language. Two types of argument are used. The first deals essentially with the dismantling of national unity, symbolised by the exclusive use of the French language. Those who defend this position are just carrying on the battle waged throughout the 19th century to impose a unitary national consciousness. It’s the same old imperialist mentality, the same denial of other people’s rights. Another argument is that the multiplication of languages is an obstacle to communication and therefore reactionary. In general, the same people would be outraged of they were asked to abandon their mother tongue, French, and speak English. This is just another form of contempt and of cultural oppression against a whole people.

By the way, nobody is asking them not to learn French. At the present time bilingualism is the best solution. Knowing two languages is anything but reactionary. We know that each language has sounds that are specific to it. Far from being an obstacle to communication, learning several languages when young makes it easier to learn other languages. C. Hagège has pointed out that languages have their own ways of expressing feelings and describing the world. That is their genius. Their suppression is a loss “for our universal human patrimony” (7).

The battle to escape from domination by the French state may still be a long one. And an active role in it will have to be played by all those who in France itself are fighting against all the forms of oppression and exploitation that come from that same French state. That’s part of internationalism.

* Daniel Desmé is a member of the LCR in France, responsible for relations with Corsica and Corsican organisations. This article is an edited and abridged version of two articles that appeared in the LCR’s quarterly journal, Critique Communiste, number 162.


  1. It has been estimated that in the course of the 17th and 18th centuries the vendetta cost the lives of 30,000 Corsicans.
  2. The Comtat Venaissin was the region centred on Avignon which belonged to the Pope and whose inhabitants voted to join France in 1791.
  3. In 1934, 6 per cent of officers and 22 per cent of soldiers of the French Army were Corsican. The island’s population represents less than half of one per cent of the population of France.
  4. Forty thousand Corsicans died in the Great War. To give an idea of the scale of the slaughter, the present-day population of the island is 260,000.
  5. Trotsky, “Independence of the Ukraine and Sectarian Muddleheads”, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1939-40, Pathfinder Press, 1969.
  6. Trotsky, op. cit.
  7. C. Hagège, Halte à la mort des langues (“Stop killing languages”), Paris, 2000.