The possibility of an island: why Corsica is not Donbas

What have the Corsican separatists been fighting for the past half-century and how they perceived the war in Ukraine

The possibility of an island: why Corsica is not Donbas

Photo: Anna Efremova, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta Europe

Corsica, a Mediterranean island with a turbulent history, is still one of the most politically heated regions in France. Until recently, local separatists demanding independence had been blowing up symbols of French rule and attacking state officials. Although in recent years their struggle has moved to the political sphere, in March, major mass protests broke out on the island. And in Russia, they hurried to compare them with a separatist uprising in Donbas.

Novaya-Europe’s correspondent Yana Fortuna has travelled to Corsica to talk to the leaders of the Corsican nationalists about what they have been fighting for in this past half-century and what response the war in Ukraine has evoked among them.

The bar on the main square of the ancient town of Corte, once Corsica’s mountain capital, is crowded with locals, mostly old men. It seems like everyone knows each other here. Townspeople drink local anise liqueur, every now and then I hear Corsican speech, which is now rarely heard on the island. In plain sight behind the bartender’s back, I see a newspaper caricature in which Vladimir Putin says with a carnivorous grin: “And if Macron shows off too much, I will recognise the independence of Corsica as well!”. I ask the bartender what does he think of the president of Russia. He looks me up and down with a frown and says:

“Putin is right. He is doing what should have been done long ago. He does the job for those who don’t have the guts to do it.”

Visitors of the bar nod their heads in approval. I notice a yellow-and-blue braided bracelet pinned to the corner of the picture. I would also like to ask about it, but the bartender makes it clear that the conversation is over. I still have half an hour before the meeting with André Fazi, a political scientist and a teacher of the local university who has long studied Corsican nationalism. It is him that I want to ask to clarify the March events for me.

Back then, Corsica was swept by a powerful wave of protests that reminded a number of pro-government Russian media of “Donbas in 2014”. In the second half of March, they published multiple similar articles suggesting that France, carried away by the Ukrainian agenda, has overlooked the Donbas in its own backyard.

At the same time, despite the fact that, according to the author of one of the articles, “these days in France only the lazy do not compare Corsica with Donbas”, not a single French media has drawn such parallels. Several Russian journalists refer to the same French-language article published by L’Observateur Continental, which contains passages like: “Corsica, just like Donbas, has long been trying to achieve independence from France” and “It seems that France has its own Donbas.” In reality, L’Observateur Continental is a website that tries to mimic the French media to spread pro-Russian narratives in Europe. According to the independent European organisation EU DisinfoLab, the website was launched in 2019 and is associated with Russian intelligence through the InfoRos news agency.

Russian propagandists were convinced that the situations were similar: both in Corsica and in Donbas, residents wish to separate from the metropolis and to speak their own language, and both governments are afraid of federalisation and refuse to make trade-offs. Macron was compared with Zelensky, the national identity of the Corsicans was compared with the self-determination of those who live in Donetsk and Luhansk, and multiple historical transitions of the eastern Ukrainian regions from one state to another were compared to the endless conquests of Corsica.

At first sight, these arguments are convincing. But in reality, calling the island “the French Donbas” means simplifying the multifaceted history of Corsican separatism, whose leaders, while disagreeing with each other in many ways, agree on one thing: on refusing to rely on any force other than the support of the Corsicans.

‘Motherland or death’, Bastia. Photo: Anna Efremova, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta Europe

‘Motherland or death’, Bastia. Photo: Anna Efremova, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta Europe

Return of the Blackfeet

Before joining France in the 19th century, Corsica had passed from hand to hand about 20 times: in different periods, the island was captured by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Tuscans and Genoese. In 1755, these last ones were forced out from the island by the Corsicans under the command of general Pascal Paoli, and Corsica finally gained independence from everyone.

I am waiting for André Fazi at the monument to Paoli, who is still honoured here as a hero. It was under him that the division of Corsican government institutions took place, the Constitution was written, the University in Corte (today named after Paoli) was opened, and elections were established. But already in 1768, Genoa, which had formally retained dominance over the island, realised it could not cope with the rebels, and handed the colony over to France, on account of debts. In 1769, the emerging Corsica’s democracy fell under the onslaught of the French order.

“Besides these 15 years, Corsica has never been an independent political unit,” says Fazi, who arrived in the meantime. “Until the beginning of the 19th century, there were still armed riots breaking out on the island, but over time Corsica ended up being fully integrated into the French state, and the Corsican national idea almost disappeared.”

The modern nationalist movement emerged in the 1960s in response to the turmoil caused by the “revival of Corsica” state programme. To begin with, the French government made an attempt to develop mass tourism on the island, which led to local protests: projects like enormous hotels for 100,000 beds in the south of the island, were threatening the environment and aggravating the land issue. Apart from this, the programme involved the modernisation of agriculture: instead of the traditional harvesting of chestnuts and olives or grazing cattle in the mountains, farmers were offered to acquire agricultural machinery and take up the development of the fertile lowlands on Corsica’s east coast. But here, too, the initiative from above did not find support among the population.

On my way to Corte, I passed through this promised arable land, which is so different from the rest of the island completely covered with mountains (the reason why it is sometimes called “the mountain in the sea”). The entire road along this flat strip on the east coast took less than an hour; there are no more land areas in Corsica suitable for cultivation. On the agricultural maps of France, Corsica is sometimes not even mentioned: only 7% of its territory may serve for growing crops and another 9% is fit for orchards and vineyards. So, in the 1960s, the government decided to give 90% of this agricultural oasis not to the local farmers, but to outsiders, the Blackfeet. This was the way they called the French who began to return to their homeland after the end of the war in Algeria. Beginning in 1962, almost 20,000 of such repatriates arrived in Corsica, where they received, out of turn, houses and plots of fertile land from the state.

“They were given favourable loans and agricultural equipment, they set up vineyards and citrus plantations on the eastern lowlands,” says Fazi. “Basically, France took care of these people in a way that it never took care of the Corsicans.”

For the local residents, all this began to resemble another colonisation, and a sharp sense of injustice gave rise to a protest movement on the island. It was then headed by regionalists who were not yet questioning the territorial integrity of France, but were already arguing against what they considered an infringement of the rights of the local population. Failing to get a response from Paris, in 1975, a group of moderate regionalists led by Edmond Simeoni occupied the wine cellar which belonged to one of repatriated winemakers, suspected of counterfeiting wine and ruining small farmers. Usually Simeoni disapproved of the use of violence, but at that moment he saw no other way to draw attention of the government to the problems of the island.

He succeeded: Paris responded. More than a thousand gendarmes with armoured vehicles and helicopters surrounded the winery. Two policemen were killed in the ensuing shootout, though not with Simeoni’s people but with a crowd of protesters who came to support them. In other words, radicalised youth whom Simeoni himself called for peace and who would very soon create the great and powerful National Liberation Front of Corsica.

Cap Corse. Photo: Anna Efremova, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta Europe

Cap Corse. Photo: Anna Efremova, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta Europe

Awakening of the nation

While some regionalists on the island were engaged in action, others in Paris supported them with a word. It was in the 1970s in Paris when a group of Corsican writers, journalists, students and lawyers were laying the ideological foundation of their national struggle. The fact is, such prosaic problems as the allotment of land stirred up the dormant national spirit of the Corsicans and raised an entire layer of their linguistic and cultural claims. The identity issue was put point-blank, and in Corsican society, a powerful movement of “cultural reappropriation” started.

Unlike the French, Corsican society has always been closer to the Mediterranean clan system, which relies on collectivism rather than liberal values. As for the Corsican language, it developed before French speakers conquered the island, and proves to be quite different from it. Corsica being an island also contributes to the cultural specificity, emphasising the idea of a separate nation. All this accompanied by the memory of French colonisation was rapidly turning Corsican regionalism into nationalism.

Today on the streets of Corte, it is difficult to find a place where one would not see a nationalist slogan. The most frequent ones are “French go away” and “Wake up, nation”. At the entrance to the university, a janitor is ripping off the row of student’s nationalist manifestoes glued to the wall; a huge banner with the same slogans flies mockingly in the wind above his head. This is the only institution of higher education on the island. Having conquered the island, the French closed it and for a long time were refusing to reopen it.

“In the 1970s, the state was unable to satisfy even the most modest requests of the local population, such as the opening of the university or optional Corsican language courses,” says André Fazi. “It was then that the process of radicalisation of society began: it seemed that violence was indispensable.”

“Young people were becoming more and more radical. Even before the events in Aleria in 1975, during one of the meetings of the Simeoni group, someone shouted: ‘Edmond, it’s time to choose: a fishing rod or a gun!’”, recalls the former nationalist activist and writer Jean-Pierre Santini.

Santini was among those Parisian intellectuals who were providing ideas and inspiring the Corsicans in their national struggle, and participated in the foundation of the National Liberation Front of Corsica in 1976 (Fronte di Liberazione Naziunale Corsu). FLNC was an armed separatist underground whose goal was complete the independence of Corsica from France. In its very first manifesto, FLNC demanded that the rights of the Corsican people be recognised, that all instruments of colonial rule, including the French administration and the army, be removed from the island, and that people’s democratic power be established on it.

“We were creating ideas and tried to make it right,” says Santini. “We believed that armed struggle was impossible, and offered to do armed propaganda, that is, to carry out armed actions that promise ideological benefits. For example, to blow up a bridge for the sake of a symbolic gesture. Like it was with the Crimean bridge.”

A farewell to arms

FLNC has never had more than 150 militants, but during its existence, the Front committed thousands of terrorist attacks, mostly blowing up French administration buildings, banks, tourist and military infrastructure and real estate owned by “foreigners”. But there were also assassination attempts. In 1998, members of FLNC committed the most high-profile murder in the history of Corsican separatism, attacking the chief representative of France on the island, prefect Claude Érignac.

“At the same time, in 40 years in Corsica there have only been about 60 deaths, a third of them are FLNC fighters themselves. Such levels of violence are not comparable, for example, with the situation in Northern Ireland or the Basque Country,” says political scientist André Fazi. (Editor’s note: The ethno-national conflict in Northern Ireland lasted from the 1960s until the end of the 20th century and took more than 3,500 lives; half of the dead were civilians. The armed opposition of the Basques to the governments of France and Spain also began in the 1960s and ended in 2011. At least 850 people were victims of the conflict.) “In Corsica, violence has always been instrumental, symbolic, with the goal to reach out to the conscience of people or put pressure on local politicians.”

‘Free Corsica’, Bastia. Photo: Anna Efremova, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta Europe

‘Free Corsica’, Bastia. Photo: Anna Efremova, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta Europe

Since the emergence of FLNC, Corsican nationalists were divided into those who supported violence and those who were against it. The radical separatist wing demanded independence and self-determination, while moderate nationalists advocated dialogue with Paris and partial autonomy for the island. In 2014, FLNC announced that it was coming out of hiding and putting an end to armed struggle. And there were a number of reasons for that.

“Violence is always destined to weaken, it cannot be sustained for a long time. For the past two decades, the level of violence in Corsica has been steadily falling,” says Andre Fazi. “In addition, it has become ineffective in terms of retribution: 10 years in prison for planting a bomb that still did not affect anything! After all, new methods of tracking have appeared. Those who killed the prefect in 1998 could not even think that they would be found with the help of wiretapping.”

“50 years ago, when FLNC was created, there were no such [advanced] technologies as today,” agrees Jean-Pierre Santini, who has also been arrested several times. “When I was once again detained in 1988, I had a chance to look into police reports: it turned out that we were followed day after day, hour after hour! Back then the French gendarmes already knew everything about the nationalists. They knew who was armed, who was not, who supported them, who could potentially commit a crime. And from time to time they used it to arrange mass arrests.”

Although FLNC has been out of business since the 2010s, small armed groups exist to this day. Santini, as it turned out, still inspires one of them with his “ideas”. In order to talk with the writer, I had to visit him in a small mountain village on the Cap Corse, because he is currently under judicial supervision for “infringement upon the security of the French state”.

“And this is just for my ideas, for my articles! That is, for dissent,” Santini spreads out his hands. “Police found a connection between me and a small armed group, which I allegedly ‘influenced’. Although, in fact, I have been writing constantly for the last 50 years, so I definitely could have ‘influenced’ a lot of people. But the most interesting part is that the only thing I ever addressed to that group was a call not to use weapons against people. That’s all my contribution! I wrote: if you want, take up arms, but do not point them at people. Because there is enough drama in Corsica already.”

Historic victory

However, the main reason why the armed struggle in Corsica has stopped is the electoral progress of Corsican nationalists. In the 1980s, the French government granted the island a special status of “territorial community” together with extended autonomy in matters like economy, education and ecology. At the same time, Corsica got its own National Assembly, a local parliament which initially included only independentists. But by the end of the 1990s, they were replaced by a new generation of moderate nationalists, and today it is they who are in power in Corsica.

The absolute majority in parliament (32 seats out of 63) is occupied by a party called Femu a Corsica (“Let’s make Corsica”) led by Gilles Simeoni, the son of Edmond Simeoni, who “awakened” the Corsican national movement in Aleria in 1975. The second place among the nationalists (8 seats) belongs to Jean-Christophe Angelini’s Partitu di a Nazione Corsa (“Party of the Corsican Nation”). Both factions are in favour of the autonomy of Corsica within the French state, although many parliamentarians call themselves “stageists” meaning that they see the autonomy as only the first step towards the independence of the island.

The autonomists do not support the idea of violent action and fear that the radical wing could compromise their dialogue with Paris. “In the end, violence in Corsica has never really borne the desired fruits,” explains political scientist André Fazi. “The local Assembly is more of an administration than a parliament. Corsicans do not have the right to adapt the laws, they do not have their own law enforcement or tax authorities.”

The head of local independentists, Jean-Guy Talamoni, strongly disagrees:

“Everything that we have achieved to date, we have achieved thanks to the armed struggle. For example, the establishment of the Assembly (for us it is obviously a political, not an administrative body). Or the special status of Corsica which has changed the way our institutions work. Or the opening of the University in Corte. All these are fruits of the armed struggle which every time forced Paris to dialogue, and thanks to which we were able to achieve at least some progress, even if it is not enough.”

Talamoni is a lawyer, a lecturer in law and literature at the University of Corte, and a leader of Corsica Libera (“Free Corsica”) independentist party, which advocates full independence and self-determination for the Corsicans. Talamoni has been a permanent member of the Corsican Assembly for the past 30 years and presided over it for the last 6 years. The headquarters of his party is located in the port city of Bastia, Corsica’s “northern capital”. The north of the island is traditionally considered “separatist”: it is here that the radical cells were based in the last century, and today the protest against everything French still catches the eye. Only Corsican names of the cities are visible on the road signs, the French version is covered practically everywhere with black spray paint, the same that densely covers the walls in Bastia itself. Here, there is no getting away from inscriptions like “French are colonisers” and “Freedom to Corsica”. Even on top of the 14th-century Genoese citadel, the French are being sent home at every corner.

‘French go home’, ‘Massimu [Susini, activist of the national movement] will live forever’, Bastia. Photo: Anna Efremova, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta Europe

‘French go home’, ‘Massimu [Susini, activist of the national movement] will live forever’, Bastia. Photo: Anna Efremova, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta Europe

On my way to the Talamoni law office I pass the café terraces where some of the older citizens are talking in Corsican language, which is much closer to modern Italian rather than French. Until the beginning of the 20th century, Corsican was the language of communication on the island, but now almost everyone here speaks French, and only a small part of the elderly population (mainly in the north) uses Corsican in everyday life.

Here is the door I need, right in front of another categorical full-wall graffiti. On the table in Talamoni’s office, there towers a huge black head of a Moor, a symbol of Corsica’s independence.

“I joined the nationalist movement at the age of 16, I always fought for independence and always supported the armed struggle,” says Talamoni. “But in 2015, we teamed up with the autonomists and won the Assembly elections. Since then, it seemed that we were moving towards a political solution [of the conflict with France].”

Talamoni is talking about the epoch-making victory of Corsican nationalists, when the parties of Simeoni, Angelini and Talamoni ran on a single list and for the first time in history gained majority in the local parliament. By the way, the FLNC deciding to lay down their arms a year before the elections played an important role here: it was a mutually approved decision that allowed the independentists to get closer with the autonomists.

Two years later, in 2017, autonomy and independence supporters managed to agree again and extend their mandate. After becoming the main political force on the island, the nationalists put forward a number of common claims.

First, they demand that Corsican be recognised as an official language along with French; in this case it will be taught in schools and, for example, used in state institutions. Secondly, they advocate special rights for residents of Corsica to purchase houses and land (the French became so fond of second houses on the “island of beauty” that the demand for real estate here has skyrocketed making market prices unbearable for the local population). Thirdly, nationalists are calling for a total amnesty for Corsican independence fighters whom they consider to be political prisoners.

“Even non-nationalist parliamentarians agree on these points”, emphasises Talamoni. As for the fourth demand, that is to give more power to local authorities, it does not find support among other members of the parliament, republicans and bonapartists from Un Soffiu Novu (“New Breath”, 17 seats out of 63) group. These centre-right parties are in opposition to nationalists who seek to determine tax and social policy on their own, leaving to the central government only such questions as defence, public order and justice.

A deal with Macron

Contradictions in the Simeoni-Talamoni coalition emerged almost immediately. They disagreed, among other things, on how much power should be given to local authorities. Just before the 2021 elections, Simeoni made a last-minute decision to run alone, breaking agreements with Talamoni’s party, and won the majority of seats in the Assembly.

“We know that it was Macron who proposed Simeoni to get rid of the separatists. And Simeoni took the deal. This is someone you wouldn’t share a foxhole with, to say the least,” Talamoni smiles ironically. Now Corsica Libera has only one representative in the Assembly, but there are others, though few, supporters of independence: the recently created party named Core in Fronte (“Heart forward”, 6 seats out of 63).

“Today, Corsica is represented only by autonomists, but their position will not lead to further progress. They are completely subordinate to Paris and are making themselves more and more ridiculous. Paris does not listen to them at all!” Talamoni laments. “For 40 years, exactly two arguments have been rolled out to us: you practise violence, and you are a minority, therefore we cannot talk to you. Well, since 2015, the armed struggle has stopped and we are now a majority. But Paris did not open a single door for us! The opposite happened: they stopped talking to us at all. I think now Simeoni understands that he will not achieve any progress. Paris never agreed to negotiate with Corsica unless forced to do so. And it was precisely the armed struggle to force Paris. That’s it, this is elementary. And it is sad.”

While those in power try not to radicalise the discussion, those who promised to lay down their arms for the sake of creating a “genuine political force” begin to regret their decision. Among the wall writings left in the lanes of Bastia with spray paint, variations of “FLNC” or “FLNC will win” are quite common. In 2021, the National Liberation Front of Corsica announced it was ready to relaunch the armed struggle since France does seem to keep up its end of the bargain. Writer Jean-Pierre Santini believes that a return to armed struggle is now impossible, but in the arsenal of national liberation fighters there have always been other types of fighting. For example, the institutional struggle.

“Only, it implies that we should actually create an alternative government, our own parallel institutions (as opposed to the state ones), rather than integrate into French structures, as autonomists elegantly did, outmanoeuvring everyone else along the way,” Santini says.

Another way to achieve their goals for Corsican nationalists is the “people’s” struggle: mass protests, trade union strikes, public demonstrations. Like those that swept across the island in March of last year and attracted the attention of journalists around the world.

‘Bastia’, ‘FLNC’, ‘Mafia go away! FLNC will win’, Bastia. Photo: Anna Efremova, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta Europe

‘Bastia’, ‘FLNC’, ‘Mafia go away! FLNC will win’, Bastia. Photo: Anna Efremova, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta Europe

Together against colonialism

It all started on March 2, when Yvan Colonna, one of the most famous Corsican nationalists, was attacked in a French prison. There, he was serving a life sentence for notoriously killing prefect Érignac in 1998. Colonna was attacked by a cellmate, fell into a coma and died three weeks later. The protests began immediately after news of the attack and lasted until the end of April. Demonstrators burned French flags and cars, lit fires and blocked ferries from the mainland. Some of them clashed with the gendarmes throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at them; hundreds of people were injured.

Traces of these protests remained on the walls of Corsican cities. Everywhere, even on church walls, there are stencil portraits of Yvan Colonna and slogans praising him as a symbol of the armed struggle for the freedom of Corsica. Sometimes next to it I see huge uneven letters, “The French state is a murderer”: almost no one in Corsica believes that Colonna’s death was an accident. A little less often I come across graffiti supporting other political prisoners still serving sentences in French prisons. Organisations that defend their rights, as well as student unions, are actively involved in street demonstrations and in general in Corsica’s political life.

‘Freedom [to political prisoners]’, Bastia. Photo: Anna Efremova, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta Europe

‘Freedom [to political prisoners]’, Bastia. Photo: Anna Efremova, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta Europe

Jean-Pierre Santini, a veteran of the nationalist movement, recalls that it used to be quite easy to imagine an ideological rally of 10,000 people: “And now, for these 7-8 thousand people to come out, it took Yvan to be killed. But it was an emotional reaction, conscious manifestations aiming to achieve something have not happened here for a long time. Well, emotions spark and then fade.”

“The Corsicans are known for this: a storm one moment, and calm the next. And nothing moves forward politically,” says Pierre Poggioli, one of the most eminent leaders of Corsican nationalism. “As a student, I became interested in Simeoni’s group, but I quickly realised that regionalism was not enough. The idea of internal autonomy was born, then we began to ask for self-determination, we tried to build an alternative government. When I was young, I joined FLNC. I was in Aleria.”

Until 1989, Poggioli was the sole leader of the National Liberation Front. He was elected to the Assembly for 14 years in a row and participated in the creation of many nationalist groups, including Corsica Libera.

“I broke off relations with all the movements and now I do not belong to any,” he says. “But I keep in touch with them because we have to stick together against colonialism.”

When I first asked him about Corsican separatism, he immediately interrupted me:

“I don’t like the word ‘separatism.’”

“What’s the word then?”

“What do you mean ‘what’? Nationalism.”

We’re meeting in the island’s capital, Ajaccio, where March protests were particularly violent, and a crowd even attempted to set the prefecture building on fire. “In March, I was with people on the streets, I participated in all the demonstrations”, says Poggioli, despite the fact that he walks leaning on his cane. “I think that it was necessary to go further. Violence is not a problem for me. On the contrary, violence appears where there is a problem.”

Apparently, this was the problem hinted at by Russian journalists who were describing how demonstrators "turn Ajaccio into a Mediterranean Kyiv of winter 2013/2014 style”. But, as it turned out, the comparison of Corsica with Donbas looks rather far-fetched and gets crushed against a complex reality where different groups of Corsican nationalists coexist. The notion that Corsica is “becoming an increasingly hot spot on the map of Europe” and is undermining the EU from within is also greatly exaggerated. The authors themselves agree that the confrontation between Corsica and France “does not last, as in Donbas, eight years, but centuries”, and that recent escalation is a single episode “on a specific occasion”, not a harbinger of a nationwide uprising.

‘Wake up, nation!’ ‘Glory to Yvan’, Corte. Photo: Anna Efremova, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta Europe

‘Wake up, nation!’ ‘Glory to Yvan’, Corte. Photo: Anna Efremova, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta Europe

Everyone I have spoken to so far had decisively denied such parallels. I decide to ask Poggioli the same question:

“What do you think about the comparison between the situations in Corsica and in Donbas? I’m starting to feel that such an analogy is not justified.”

“I don’t know, I don’t know. On what basis do you say that it is not justified?” Poggioli squints his eyes on me. “You know, I don’t think that Russia is wrong about everything. Nor am I one of those who totally support Ukraine. Is Donbas Ukrainian? It is not that simple. There, as elsewhere, people have the right to self-determination.”

And this is not the first manifestation of solidarity between the Corsicans and residents of the Donetsk and Luhansk “republics" that I have encountered.

Putin’s anti-colonial movement

“One might ask: why do Corsicans have warm feelings for Novorossiya (or New Russia, this is how the Russian propaganda refers to Ukraine’s southern and eastern regionstranslator’s note) and for the Russian world as a whole? The fact is that the Corsican people did not let globalisation enslave them. We have preserved our Christian culture, our traditional values and our passionate love for the homeland of our ancestors. This brings us closer to Russia,” here is how in 2017 Corsican nationalist Thierry Biaggi explained to Russian state news agency RIA Novosti the reason why the “uprising” in Donbas “struck a chord with conservative Corsicans”.

Biaggi is a leader of a small Corsican national-patriotic group Leia Naziunale (“National Ties”), which, in another article by RIA Novosti, is called “friends of Novorossiya”. In 2016, Biaggi with his “associates” travelled to Donbas. In 2021 he ended up on the electoral list of a Corsican radical separatist party Forza Nova (“New Force”), not to be confused with the Italian far-right party Forza Nuova, also loyal to the Kremlin. Or to be confused? For some reason representatives of both the Corsican party and its Italian namesake have official profiles on the Russian social network VK, and with the outbreak of the war in Ukraine both took the side of Russia. At the same time, in its statements the Corsican Forza Nova refers to Russia as “Saint”, while its leader, Italian national Filippo De Carlo calls Donbas “Dombass”. However, the party created in 2019 is still on the periphery of Corsica’s political landscape and has no weight in the overall layout.

“This is not even a party, but a group of people,” says political scientist André Fazi. “They once supported a candidate in the territorial elections, and that’s it.”

“This is a very small group of people that does not represent anyone. I think there are a maximum of 20 people. Although, if you count with family members (in Corsica you always need to count family members), then there should be a hundred people,” says the writer Jean-Pierre Santini. And adds: “There have already been fascists in Corsican nationalist movement, so I understand the ideology of this group very well. It is a classic far right ideology.”

Despite the fact that such movements are too radical to resonate with the majority, today it sometimes happens that Corsican nationalism, while defending its identity, overlaps with the far right. For example, it puts emphasis on Christian values or speaks in a hostile manner against migrants from North Africa. Also, Forza Nova invites to make common cause with other small nations: as Thierry Biaggi writes on his VK page, “today Donbas, tomorrow Kosovo, Northern Cyprus, Karabakh” And then Corsica? After all, “referendums” that took place in the four annexed regions of Ukraine in September became a “breath of hope” for the far-right Corsicans and “all the struggling European nations”.

‘Corsica is a Christian land’, Bastia. Photo: Anna Efremova, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta Europe

‘Corsica is a Christian land’, Bastia. Photo: Anna Efremova, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta Europe

I am thinking of a poster from the bar in Corte where Putin threatened to recognise Corsica’s independence to spite Macron. In general, the local attitude towards the Macron government, which ignores the demands of Corsican nationalists, is so negative that during the last presidential election, almost 60% of the island voted for Marine Le Pen. And this despite the fact that she advocates against Corsica’s autonomy.

“In Corsica, they have always voted for the conservatives, this is not surprising,” says Andre Fazi. “But one should not underestimate right-wing conservatism that dreams of a strong leader. And for the West, he is personified by Putin. Putin is a sort of antithesis to the “decaying” West.

“Putin’s speeches against Western ideology are heard by those who have experienced colonialism,” explains Jean-Pierre Santini. As for Putin, indeed, he has recently been willing to exploit the image of Russia being a leader of the nations oppressed by the West, a country that “led the anti-colonial movement in the 20th century”. If the Kremlin seriously saddles the colonial agenda, it can put into action exactly the arguments about the infringement upon smaller nations and the crisis of traditional values.

Corsican nationalism is by its nature even more conservative than others: born in the 1960s from a burning sense of injustice and a fear of change, it turned into an endeavour to protect the rights and cultural identity of Corsicans from external threats. For example, from colonisers, globalists, the USA, NATO or the European Union, which FLNC called an alliance that “denies the rights of peoples, their cultural characteristics and traditions” back in 2014. Today, the main accusation of the far-right nationalists against the Corsican Assembly is that “by taking the side of NATO” it “violated the fundamental principle of Corsican nationalism, that is the people’s right to self-determination.”

“Of course, the people should have the right to self-determination,” Santini agrees. “Now this is a problem facing people from some regions of Ukraine who consider themselves Russians or want to join Russia. And, of course, they are free to exercise their right to self-determination. Only under the supervision of the UN.”

‘The French are colonisers’, Bastia. Photo: Anna Efremova, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta Europe

‘The French are colonisers’, Bastia. Photo: Anna Efremova, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta Europe

“Forza Nova is nothing, they don’t matter. But the Corsican nationalists have always opposed NATO,” reminds their former leader Pierre Poggioli, tapping his cane on the ground. “Today, many are inspired by the arguments of the extreme right, but we have always said that NATO is the driving force of American imperialism. We even once set off an explosion at their military base in the south of Corsica. Today, NATO and the EU want to push Russia against the wall, to eliminate it, but this is dangerous for the whole world. I believe that Russia is essential to maintain the balance in Europe. Whether Putin made a mistake with Ukraine, this is something that can be argued about.”

On their own

The prevailing view among the students of the University in Corte is quite clear: he made a mistake.

“When the war started, I was so shocked I couldn’t get out of bed all day,” one of André Fazi’s students from the political science course says. “I would say that now most of us support the Ukrainian people. Actually, both peoples, since they are both victims. And criticise the regimes of both Putin and Zelensky. I spend a lot of time on the Internet and I see that there is a small percentage of those who support Putin’s actions. But such people are very, very few even among the extreme right.”

“There is nothing similar to Donbas in any European country,” believes Fazi himself. “It is delusional to compare those events of 2014 to the Corsican national movement. There is a gigantic difference in the intensity and the scale of violence, not to mention the interference of a foreign state.”

By the way, Corsican nationalists of the 1920s and 1930s were Italianophiles and even believed Corsican language to be a dialect of Italian. But many of them supported fascism, and modern nationalists have wanted to stay away from these sentiments. Today, nobody talks about returning to Italy. There are several groups on social media calling on Corsicans to re-establish cultural ties with Italy, but they are often created by the Italians themselves.

“No one really has our back. Not like Donbas, backed by a large country that speaks the same language,” Jean-Pierre Santini grins. “Now, if Italy wanted to get Corsica back, we could talk about analogies. But no, Corsicans are on their own.”

“We don’t want to side with anyone, with no-one!” emphasises leader of the Corsica Libera Jean-Guy Talamoni. “We stand for Corsica becoming an independent state.”

Quite understandable, given that throughout the history of the island, its inhabitants had to rise in arms against the conquerors almost 40 times.

‘He was a man, but became the people’, a portrait of Yvan Colonna and a symbol of the FLNC, Corte. Photo: Anna Efremova, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta Europe

‘He was a man, but became the people’, a portrait of Yvan Colonna and a symbol of the FLNC, Corte. Photo: Anna Efremova, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta Europe

Meanwhile, Paris never allowed an armed confrontation with separatists. It always tried to dialogue with them, although, as many believe, this dialogue is sooner or later doomed to reach a dead end. “Even the autonomists are powerless,” says Jean-Pierre Santini. “They demand that the Corsican people be recognised in the French Constitution, which is never going to happen because there is only one people in the French Constitution, the French.”

The French Republic considers all its citizens as French and recognizes French as the only official language (the reason why Pierre Poggioli calls France the most “dictatorial” and “Jacobin” state in the world). To give Corsica autonomy would require an extremely complex and lengthy process of amending the Constitution. Achieving this politically has to be just as hard.

“The political elites in France are strongly committed to the fundamental ideas of a single and indivisible Republic, for them this is a very important issue,” explains André Fazi. “To make an exception to this principle means to inevitably provoke criticism.”


In March, in the midst of the protests over the assault on Yvan Colonna, the French Minister of the Interior came to Corsica and announced that Paris was ready to discuss even the autonomy of the island. But even then, it remained a promise. In the meantime, independentists are tired of talking and propose to change the strategy, relying (and this is the main thing that distinguishes them from the Donbas “authorities”) on the fact that they were elected by the people: in 2021, nationalists occupied 70% of the seats in the Corsican parliament.

“We won our votes in a democratic way. We won territorial, parliamentary and trade union elections. We got the majority even in the Chamber of Agriculture, everywhere!” says Jean-Guy Talamoni, the head of Corsica Libera. “We all took an oath to the Corsican people and today, with the mandate we received from them, we can, for example, set up a blockade of the island and force Paris into a dialogue, without any violence whatsoever. The autonomists continue to negotiate… Well, we propose to go further, up to civil disobedience. You are a force chosen by the people, so why are you afraid of the gendarmes? I, too, would prefer to do without it, as well as without decades of armed struggle. But our goal is for our children to live in peace and be able to get everything they are owed by simply running for elections.”

Meanwhile, writer Jean-Pierre Santini believes that the national movement in Corsica is in decay:

“Recently, I participated in a protest that took place in front of a local prison. There were five or six organisations fighting for the release of political prisoners. And as many as five student unions, each consisting of a negligible number of participants. But most importantly, why do you need five of them? This dispersal is remarkable, it is similar to the decomposition of a body, the disintegration of something dying into particles.”

Jean-Guy Talamoni, on the contrary, is optimistic about the future of young Corsicans:

“Look how many student organisations there are now! Young people are very active and motivated. I look forward to the future of Corsica with great hope because I believe that we have won the battle of ideas. In the 70s, when we as teenagers began our struggle for independence, identity, culture, language, Corsican society did not understand us. But we won the cultural battle, and now have the support of the majority. Today I can tell you that Corsica will never be France.”

According to public surveys, the number of Corsicans who are in favour of independence (32%) has indeed doubled over the past 30 years. However, among the population many more still support autonomy (73%). Two years ago, the Corsican representative Santo Parigi first entered the French Senate, where he now promotes the idea that “Corsica has chosen a democratic path”, and that “nationalists have proven that they want to put an end to the history of violence”.

“I don’t know what will happen next. I don’t project my fantasies, I observe,” says veteran of the Corsican nationalist movement Pierre Poggioli. “A new world order is now taking shape, and this is not playing into our hands. Now people are afraid, among other things, of what is happening in Russia. They want to unite to protect themselves. This is no time for small states.”

Editor in chief — Kirill Martynov. Terms of use. Privacy policy.