A letter from Corsica

With the cold, overcast weather still dominating mainland France, it is a relief to be in Corsica with its strong, bright sun, turquoise water and snow-topped mountains. Little known to Australian tourists, it is truly a paradise. James Boswell sang its praises in his Account of Corsica, The Journal of a Tour to That Island published in 1768, twenty-three years before his better known Life of Johnson.

Over a hundred years later, Guy de Maupassant praised its natural beauty in his Contes du jour et de la nuit.

Imagine a world still in chaos, a storm of mountains that separate narrow ravines with rushing torrents, no plains but immense waves of granite and giant undulations of earth covered with maquis or, higher up, forests of chestnut trees and pines. This is virgin soil, uncultivated and deserted, although occasionally a village can be glimpsed, like a pile of rocks on top of a small hill.

This, in spite of the massive amount of modern development, is still an accurate description. Tourism is huge, but the season lasts for barely three months of the year. With a resident population of only 300,000, it swells ten-fold in summer to 3 million, almost exclusively from France and Europe. For the rest of the year, government largesse fills the void. A couple of Corsican youths I conversed with explained they worked as chefs during the summer. In winter, they said they were on the dole and laughed loudly.

However, as we know, dependence of this type can breed contempt, and there is a long and fraught history in the relationship between France and Corsica; a mixture of hypersensitivity, sometimes-violent nationalist irruptions and a French government that melds indulgence with frustration and appeasement.

Interior Minister Manuel Valls, arriving in the port city of  Bastia early last month, just after the eleventh murder this year and amidst violent clashes between police and the militant union of students, observed that violence is “embedded in this island culture”. The FLNC [Corsican National Liberation Front], immediately denounced these “ultra Jaocbin” words from “France” and proved him right by declaring itself ready to take up arms. The purpose of the hapless minister’s visit was modestly described as a bid “to help the economy and to restore law and order”.

The murder rate here is estimated to be the highest per inhabitant in Europe, with financial scandals, maladministration of government funds, rampant illegal building construction, a healthy drug trade and money laundering, and a general contempt for French law reinforced with the occasional assassination of a French official. Riots, strikes and fire bombings of premises are standard fair. Notwithstanding the underlying truth of what the Minister said, the outrage was incandescent. The Corsicans were “insulted”. The locals run the place the way they want, resentful of any French interference or demands for accountability. A militant assertiveness has taken hold, encouraged over the years with generous funding for their “Corsican” university, the establishment of a written language, and cultural support and infrastructure projects generally.

A notable response from Edmond Simeoni, one of the “fathers” of Corsican nationalism, claimed in an op-ed piece soon after the minister’s visit, “France has been good at slavery, and a champion of colonialism, with a secular parade of spoils, of violence and torture, of assassinations. France, which imposed itself on Corsica through arms in 1769, has never given up these fatal practices.” He concluded, “M. Valls is disqualified from choosing, or even less, imposing Corsica’s destiny. He has the effect of radicalizing Corsica.”

More reasonable is a one-time leader of the FLNC, Pierre Poggioli. He freely acknowledges the problems of organized crime and violence, and he worries, too, that a crisis is looming. It is also true that the French are acting on deficiencies in law enforcement and improving intelligence and upgrading the prosecutors office and policing.

Corsicans, like many island peoples, tend to be guarded and visibly distance themselves from outsiders. They can even be indifferent and abrupt. Some outsiders, like an old friend of mine from Paris who thought he was in sync with the locals, found his “residence” dynamited. Not uncommon. However, through modernity, the internet, travel overseas during those long winter months and the sheer numbers of tourists, Corsica is being forced to change to a more modern and open society. According to Poggioli, many of the current problems are reflected in this change. Most Corsicans, when you have the time to get to know them, do appreciate and recognize the value of France and do show generosity and openness to visitors.

One irony is that, 200 years ago, Boswell was encouraged by none other than the philosopher Rousseau to visit Corsica and he was swept up by its independence struggle against the “old” Europe of Genoa. This struggle has continued to this day. It may just run out of steam with the modernity of globalization.  

In spite of the organised crime and corruption, talking to the locals this appears to only concern those who are directly involved. Corsica remains one of the most peaceful, safe, quiet and dreamily beautiful places in Europe. I would recommend it to anyone for a holiday. You don’t even need to lock your front door when you go to the beach.

Leave a Reply