Mayor Pierre Savelli fishes out a copy of rules once posted in every school of Corsica. The first: students are forbidden to speak the Corsican language and spit on the floor.
“I am part of the last generation that learned Corsican when it was a banned language,” says 57-year-old Mr. Savelli, speaking from his office in this northeastern Corsican city, as gulls wheel and swoop over the port below. “We weren’t allowed to speak Corsican in schools. The parents spoke it when they didn’t want us to know what they were saying.”
Things are different now. Paris is slowly loosening its administrative straitjacket on local matters, from spitting to solar energy. As a result, on the rugged Mediterranean island of Corsica, a region of France since 1796, roughly one in three children now studies Corsican, or Corsu.
Across Europe, regions are reviving old languages and customs in a broader push for self assertion. But Corsica has gone further, electing nationalists to head the regional government for the first time. And today, language – notably a push by local lawmakers to give Corsican equal status with French – is polarizing relations with Paris.
Between France and Italy
Despite its long connection to France, Corsica's culture is heavily rooted in Italy's former independent states. Indeed, the Corsican language is closely related to Italian, likely due in large part to Corsica's being controlled by Italian states for more than 200 years, most recently Genoa during the 18th century.
Genoese rule was broken by a rebellion led by 18th century statesman and Corsican hero Pascal Paoli, who paved the way for the short-lived Corsican Republic in 1755 and a constitution then considered to be among Europe’s most progressive.
But independence hopes were dashed 14 years later, after Genoa sold its claims to Corsica to France, which then invaded the island. Though Paoli briefly reestablished an Anglo-Corsican kingdom between 1794 and 1796, France has largely controlled the territory ever since.
That has not silenced Corsica's nationalist movements. In the 1970s, the armed National Front for the Liberation of Corsica began using violence to draw attention to its cause. Its most high profile attack came in 1998, when it assassinated Claude Erignac, the French prefect of the island. It ended its attacks in 2014, when it officially laid down its weapons.
“The struggle is over and done with,” says Savelli, who helped found a student independence movement in the 1970s with nationalist leader Jean-Guy Talamoni. “We can’t construct anything without peace.”
But Corsu has taken on a new meaning since a coalition of separatists and more moderate "autonomists" were voted into power last December. Nationalists called on the French central government to give the language co-official status with French. More shockwaves came when Mr. Talamoni, the new assembly president, delivered his inaugural address in Corsican.
“By voting for the nationalists, the Corsican people have said that Corsica is not just a piece of another country, but a nation, with its language, its culture, its political tradition,” said Mr. Talamoni, flanked by the island’s moor’s head flag, to cheers from his supporters.
The push for Corsican identity, like that in other separatist-minded regions from Catalonia to Scotland, has also gotten a second wind from Britain’s vote in June to exit the European Union.
Though the central government has rejected the idea of co-official status for Corsu – “The Republic has one official language, French,” said Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls during an early July visit to the island – officials like Savelli are not waiting for a change of heart in Paris.
The city hall offers morning language classes to its employees. In September, Bastia will separately pilot a new Corsican currency – provisionally dubbed il soldi Corsi – aimed at boosting the local economy and eventually being rolled out island-wide.
And in Bastia’s hilly suburbs, students at Subissi primary school follow a curriculum taught equally in Corsican and French.
“In the beginning schools had a hard time finding enough qualified teachers, but that’s changed,” says Jose Ersa, the school principal. “Students can take the bilingual option through middle school and even in high school.”
Cedric Buldo enrolled his two daughters at Subissi as a way to embrace his family’s heritage.
“Many Corsicans moved away for work, but we went the opposite direction,” says Mr. Buldo, who spent 20 years in Marseille before moving home. “We wanted to return to our roots, to our culture and quality of life.”
'We are a nation'
Savelli, who supports greater Corsican autonomy but not independence, believes it’s just a matter of time before Corsu earns equal rank with French.
“We’ve worked hard to prevent the disappearance of the Corsican language,” he says, “but only with co-officiality will it be used in daily life. If it’s confined to language tapes, it is dead.”
Whatever the fate of Corsu, the idea of separatism remains, if nothing else, in the local vocabulary. In conversations here, France is often referred to as the distant “continent,” while Corsica is “the country.”
“Because it is,” says Francescu Morandini, speaking Corsican with a friend at a cafe near Bastia’s old port. “We are a nation, we’ve always had colonizers. We hope this new government constructs something for Corsica.”
Others agree, to a point.
“It’s great to worry about the Corsican language and culture, but Corsica also has lots of economic problems,” says University of Corsica political analyst Andre Fazi. “There was a push to bring the nationalists to the assembly. Now let’s see what they do.”
This was part 14 of Who is 'Europe'?, a weekly series on how European natives and residents are responding to pressures from terrorism, migration, nationalism, and the 'European project.' See all of the stories on the series homepage.