On July 6, 2003, citizens on the French island of Corsica will vote on a new “governing statute” intended to grant the troubled region a degree of autonomy and to reform the institutions through which the French state governs the island. Corsica, a “mountain in the sea” with only 260,000 inhabitants, regularly attracts enormous attention from the French media and often gets worldwide exposure. The attention derives not simply from the violence that periodically occurs there, but rather from the profound questions that the violence raises for France and, indeed, for the very idea of a unitary, centralized democratic republic. The situation in Corsica is the most violent among the several regional movements in France—movements that also express themselves with occasional violence in the Basque Country and in Brittany. Nonetheless, the persistent violence in Corsica has been especially effective in forcing the French polity to question whether the rigidly egalitarian and centralized French republican system inherited from the French Revolution can persist in an age of ethnic identities and European integration.
In introducing the referendum, the French government has insisted that Corsica is not an exception to the French system of governance, but rather fits into an overall movement towards French decentralization. In fact, however, Corsica has already known three governing statutes in the last 20 years that were unique to the island. None of them has appeased the violent and separatist impulses. As a result of these successive statutes, Corsica has become a sort of national institutional laboratory for a policy of accelerated decentralization. The point of this policy is to create a new role for a French state that is suffering challenges to its authority both from below in the form of violent regional movements and from above through the process of European integration. For France, the Corsican experiment has thus become a political gamble with national stakes.
The Island of Corsica
Corsica is divided into two territorial entities by a mountain barrier of over 2500 metres (8200 feet). Its history and political organization has long been determined by this division between “this side of the mountain” that looks toward the port of Bastia and the Italian peninsula, and “the other side” facing the administrative capital Ajaccio and the French mainland. This mountainous territory is further compartmentalized into a variety of insular micro-regions, historically dominated by small rural villages. The local political class, always divided within itself, has no concept of a regional political identity or of the necessity of collective economic development.