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Sunday, February 8, 1998 Published at 12:02 GMT

World: Analysis

Corsica: France's headache
image: [ Members of a nationalist group announcing the cessation of an earlier ceasefire ]
Members of a nationalist group announcing the cessation of an earlier ceasefire

There is speculation that the killing of Claude Erignac, the senior French official on the island of Corsica -- situated off the coast of Italy -- may have been the work of Corsican nationalists demanding greater autonomy from France. France's Interior Minister, Jean-Pierre Chevenement, has suggested the murder may have been part of a larger plot. Jan Repa explains:

[ image: Claude Erignac, the murdered prefect]
Claude Erignac, the murdered prefect
Claude Erignac, the Corsican Prefect - a government-appointed official roughly equivalent to a provincial governor - was killed by gunmen on his way to a concert.

Last month, the most radical of a number of Corsican autonomist groups - the so-called Historic Wing of the Corsican National Liberation Front - said it was ending a seven-month "truce" announced last June to give Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's incoming Socialist government time to present new policies for the island.

A spokesman for the group has denied responsibility for the shooting - but violence is now endemic in Corsica.

French leaders have pledged that the killers will be identified and punished - and French law upheld: a point emphasised by President Jacques Chirac:

"I hope that those leading the inquiry will get to the bottom of this as soon as possible and that the police - the judiciary, sorry - will be able to punish those behind this heinous crime. I reaffirm my determination that everything will be done for the state's authority to be respected".

Corsica - birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte - is a beautiful but relatively backward Mediterranean island, with a reputation for clan vendettas and grumbling discontent with French rule, which began in the 1760s.

Many of its quarter-of-a-million inhabitants still speak the local Italian dialect. More native Corsicans now live in mainland France than on the island itself.

Only a small minority of Corsicans actively support the radical autonomists; though many are said to adopt a "see nothing, say nothing" approach. In the past, many Corsicans sought careers in the French army and the colonial administration - an outlet which ended with the breakup of the empire in the 1960s.

French governments have plied the island with subsidies. A Corsican Assembly was established in 1982 to manage these funds. But critics say the policy has aggravated Corsica's problems - autonomist militancy becoming inextricably linked with banditry, protection rackets and traditional family feuds. Several hundred bombs go off in Corsica each year - causing few injuries but doing great damage to the tourist industry.

What successive French governments have been unwilling to offer is meaningful regional autonomy, including official status for the Corsican language and recognition of the Corsicans as a distinct nationality.

Corsican militants, in fact, do not advocate total independence. But French governments remain firmly attached to the republican dogma, in place since the French Revolution of 1789, of a unitary state, inhabited by one "nation of citizens".

Autonomy for Corsica might encourage similar demands in other culturally or linguisticaly distinct regions of France - like Brittany, Alsace, the Basque country or Languedoc.

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