Corsica and Wales: similar past, similar futures?

After escaping GCSEs, I went to Corsica for a great holiday. In the supermarkets, I saw Corsican produce lining the shelves. The Corsican flag was flown proudly from buildings and draped in small shops. There was a distinct sense of nationality and culture. It made me wonder about the island’s history and political situation, and how that compares to Wales.

Corsica’s flag – used during the island’s independence – is flown in supermarkets, on houses and is proudly displayed on produce.

Corsica was originally settled by Northern Italians and Celtic people. Romans, Greeks and Italian city-states, especially the Genoese, controlled Corsica for many centuries. However, in 1729, a revolt broke out against high Genoese taxes after a series of poor harvests and an independence struggle began. Similarities to this are seen in the Welsh Rising led by Owain Glyndŵr in 1400. This was caused due to nationalism but also due to the ‘Penal Laws against Wales Act of 1402’, which severely restricted the rights and freedoms of Welsh people, that was designed to establish English dominance but stoked the fires of a Welsh rebellion.

In 1754, Pasquale Paoli reformed the independent Corsica’s democracy by granting the vote to all men of 25 and ensuring there was a strong representative democracy on the island, rare for the period. The independent Corsica saw investment with a university being built, schools across the island, a printing press, a mint and an arms factory. This period still inspires nationalists of the potential of the island to be progressive, independent and highly democratic, while retaining their culture and language. However, the rebellion was crushed when French forces attacked the island later in the 18th century and the French monarchy took control of Corsica.

It wasn’t until after the Second World War, in which Corsican guerilla activity successfully damaged Mussolini’s forces, did the French state attempt to fix Corsica’s economic problems. They modernised agricultural techniques and lay the foundations for a tourist industry in Corsica. However, many Corsicans saw this as an attack on their traditional way of life, and eyed the reforms with suspicion.

Due to the insecurities Corsica faced and the frustration at half-hearted economic policies from Paris, nationalists called for decentralised government. The Fronte di Liberazione Naziunale di a Corsica (FLNC), a group of radical nationalists with links to the IRA, began an armed campaign of bombings, attacks on tourist villages and foreign-owned properties. This was Corsica’s troubles. When compared to Wales, similarities can be seen here too. Wales saw a number of bombing incidents in the 1960s by Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru, who bombed infrastructure carrying water to Liverpool after the drowning of Tryweryn. In Lampeter, the Free Wales Army was formed. The FWA was a paramilitary organisation, that operated in the 1960s with strong links to the IRA, and planned to establish an independent Welsh republic through force. Just like the FLNC, Meibion Glyndŵr (Sons of Glyndŵr) attacked holiday homes. They set ablaze around 220 English-owned holiday homes from 1979 to the mid-1990s. Fortunately, organised violence has ceased in Wales and Corsica.

A road sign with “FLNC” spray-painted on in northern Corsica.

Today, only traces of FLNC activity exist. Road signs in Corsica have two-names for each town, one in French and one in Corsican. The French names are designed to be easier to pronounce for the French and symbolises France’s policy of assimilation. It’s the same as happened during the Anglification of Wales, with town names renamed to ‘Aberayron’ or ‘Lanybyther’. The remains of the FLNC have spray painted over the French versions of the town names, and graffiti signs around Corsica’s countryside. However, due to devolution, the island’s independence movement has become far more peaceful with nationalists using the Assembly to argue for independence.

Corsican devolution began in 1982. Today’s Corsican Assembly has limited powers over education, culture and communication, sport, planning sustainable development, transport, some infrastructure management, housing and land, economic development and the environment. However, the Corsican Assembly does not have revenue raising powers and is subordinate to the centralised French government. This is not enough for most Corsicans. In the recent elections for the French Assembly, three-quarters of Corsican seats went to nationalists. The nationalists range from supporting independence to more devolution and protection of Corsican culture.

When compared to the powers of the Welsh Assembly, the Corsican Assembly has more powers in some areas, but in most areas the Corsicans have fewer powers than the Welsh decided by the people of the island. Overall, the French state is hostile to decentralisation, with most presidential candidates promising no change or a rollback of regional power. Macron was painfully neutral on this topic, he promised a ‘conference of territories’. However, the conference is unlikely to change much and is focused on French overseas territories, such as French Polynesia and Guiana, rather than Corsica.

Corsica has a strong sense of national pride. Corsicans are proud of their island’s culture, history and independence in a way that is not seen to the same extent in Wales. Corsica’s Assembly shows that nationalist parties can make a breakthrough if they press hard enough on even the French government. With a tighter makeup of the French Assembly, Corsican votes could become crucial to the French government and give them leverage to increase Corsica’s powers. If three-quarters of Welsh seats went to nationalist parties in the recent General Election, as they did in Corsica, you can bet that Wales would have a better chance of securing stronger devolution and, if Welsh people wish for one, an independence referendum. For this to happen, Wales needs to learn from other stateless nations such as Corsica that have a strong national pride and intelligent debates over independence.

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