Corsica is one of the 26 régions of France, although strictly speaking Corsica is called a “territorial collectivity” (collectivité territoriale) by law. As a territorial collectivity, it enjoys powers slightly more important than other French régions, but for the most part its status is quite similar to the status of the other French régions. Corsica is referred to as a “région” in common speech, and is almost always listed among the other régions of France. Although the island is separated from the continental mainland by the Ligurian Sea, politically Corsica is considered part of Metropolitan France.
Corsica is famed as the birthplace of Napoléon Bonaparte.
The island has a Mediterranean climate, with hot, dry summers and mild, rainy winters. The natural vegetation was Mediterranean forests, woodlands, and shrub. The coastal lowlands are part of the Tyrrhenian-Adriatic sclerophyllous and mixed forests ecoregion, in which forests and woodlands of evergreen sclerophyll oaks predominate, chiefly Holm Oak (Quercus ilex) and Cork Oak (Quercus suber). The mountains are cooler and wetter, and home to the Corsican montane broadleaf and mixed forests ecoregion, which support diverse forests of oak, pine, and broadleaf deciduous trees, with vegetation more typical of northern Europe on the slopes of the highest peaks.
Much of the coastal lowlands has been cleared for agriculture, and grazing and logging have reduced the mountain forests considerably.
The island has a natural park (Parc Naturel Régional de Corse), which protects thousands of rare animal and plant species. The park was created in 1972 and includes the Golfe de Porto, the Réserve Naturelle de Scandola (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), and some of the highest mountains on the island. This park is protected and cannot be reached on foot, but sumptuous sails are available in order to discover unique landscapes. Two endangered subspecies of hoofed mammals, the mouflon (Ovis aries musimon) and Corsican red deer (Cervus elaphus corsicanus) inhabit the island; the Corsican red deer is endemic.
Because of the strategic position it occupies in the Mediterranean, Corsica has long been considered significant as a platform for military operations, particularly during the several centuries of violent conflict between Italy and France. During those times, possible unification with the neighbouring island of Sardinia was seen as a dangerous eventuality by many European states, because it would have given the ruler of the islands a dominant position in the Mediterranean Sea.
The city state of Genoa held sway over the island for centuries before ceding Corsica to France in 1768 to help pay off a debt. An important figure in Corsican history is Pasquale Paoli (1725-1807), the Corsican general and patriot who struggled for Corsican independence, first against Genoa, then against France. It was essentially with him that the Moor’s head (“Testa Maura”) became Corsica’s emblem in 1760, hearking back to the period when Corsica had been controlled by Moors (850 to 1034).
Corsica is also the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte, who was born in Ajaccio, into minor Corsican nobility. Corsica was under French control at the time, and Corsican nobles were offered the ability to gain French titles if they could prove their genealogy sufficiently. In an attempt to do so, Napoleon’s parents travelled to court in France, and, like many other Corsican nobles, sent their son to school there.
Tourism plays a major role in the Corsican economy. The island’s pleasant climate, beautiful mountains and breathtaking coastlines make it a popular destination among the French and other Western Europeans. However, the island has not had the same level of intensive development as other parts of the Mediterranean and is thus relatively unspoiled. Tourism is particularly concentrated in the area around Porto Vecchio and Bonifacio in the south of the island and Calvi in the northwest.
Corsica is currently governed almost as any other région of France, as explained in the introduction. There are several movements on the island calling for some degree of Corsican autonomy from France, or even full independence. Generally speaking, autonomist proposals focus on the promotion of the Corsican language, more power for local governments, and some exemptions from national taxes in addition to those already applying to Corsica.
The French government is opposed to full independence, as it would threaten France’s unity, but has at times shown support for some level of autonomy. There is support on the island for proposals of greater autonomy, but polls show that a large majority of Corsican are opposed to full independence.
Some groups who claim to support Corsican independence have carried out a violent campaign since the 1970s that includes bombings and a few assassination attempts, usually targeting pieds-noirs and other non-Corsicans, or buildings and officials representing the French government. The peaceful occupation of a pied-noir vineyard in Aléria in 1975 marked a turning point when the French government responded with overwhelming force, generating sympathy for the independence groups among the Corsican population. However, events such as the murder of préfet Claude Érignac on February 6, 1998 (for which Yvan Colonna was arrested five years later) have only served to convince many in Corsica, as well as in the French government and the general French public, that Corsican nationalists cannot be trusted with more autonomy. Recent attacks on Muslims have reinforced this opinion.
Some of the independence groups are known to practice extortion and other intimidatory tactics, not dissimilar from mafia activity in Sicily and southern Italy. Non-Corsican homeowners may be threatened with the destruction of their home, able to be avoided only through paying a ransom. Journalists writing articles critical of the armed groups have sometimes been threatened. Prosecutions are made difficult by a pervasive “law of silence”. It is sometimes suggested that such behavior could be directly related to longstanding cultural traditions of banditry in the rugged interior of the island.
In 2000, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin agreed to grant increased autonomy to Corsica in exchange for an end to violence. The proposed autonomy for Corsica would have included greater protection for the Corsican language (Corsu), the island’s traditional language (which is also considered to be a dialect of Italian), whose practice and teaching, like other regional or minority languages in France, had in the past been discouraged. According to the UNESCO classification, the Corsican language is currently in danger of becoming extinct. However, the plans for increased autonomy were opposed by the Gaullist opposition in the French National Assembly, who feared that they would lead to calls for autonomy from other régions (such as Brittany or Alsace), eventually threatening France’s unity as a country.
In a referendum on July 6, 2003, a narrow majority of Corsican voters opposed a project from the government of Jean-Pierre Raffarin and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy that would have suppressed the two départements of the island and granted greater autonomy to the territorial collectivity of Corsica.