AT a glance it looked like any small-town fair, with smoke wafting from the barbecue, families gathering around picnic tables, music percolating over loudspeakers and doting parents trailing after happy toddlers in front of white tents hawking brightly colored T-shirts and knickknacks.
But the Ghjurnate Internaziunale di Corti (the International Days of Corte) were hardly fun and games. It turns out that militant separatists, like baseball owners, car salesmen and trade unionists, also convene regularly to hash out strategies, exchange war stories and rally the troops. The Days, a late-summer annual affair, bring together militants from around the world. Those T-shirts and knickknacks were printed with hooded gunmen pointing rifles, and the barbecue raised money for jailed comrades. Even a few toddlers, like their parents, were decked out in military fatigues.
The gathering unfolded in a scruffy corner of the University of Corsica Pasquale Paoli here, against a pastoral backdrop of mountains, fields and streams, along with the occasional crackle of gunfire. (Or so a French reporter told me one morning, having said he heard shots on campus the previous evening during movie night — a screening of “Bloody Sunday.”)
Sardinian separatists, Basque and Catalan nationalists, Melanesian Kanaks from New Caledonia, Occitanes from Provence and a few leaders of joined locals to speechify and grumble about prisoners, debate tactics and talk cultural politics. Battles over sovereignty and independence are being waged far less often these days as violent campaigns than as hearts-and-minds political struggles over identity. And identity means culture.
So said Jean-Guy Talamani, the leader of Corsica Libera, the more radical of this island’s two main nationalist parties, when buttonholed about his party’s separatist agenda. He almost sounded like a school principal: “Language and culture are the heart and soul of our political program,” he insisted. Remarking on the growing violence toward second-home buyers here, who come from elsewhere in France and abroad, he added: “We welcome all people here, but we believe that if you come to Corsica, and you want to become Corsican, you need to integrate, which means embracing our culture, our language. These are the essence of our identity.”
That is (not coincidentally) what France says too in describing the terms of French citizenship that Corsican nationalists, among others, must accept and often say they find hard to swallow: namely, that to be French one must give oneself over to French culture, to the language and to identity-blind republican ideals of citizenship. Those ideals clash with the unresolved multicultural reality of modern France (the racially divided French World Cup soccer team, which fell apart during the opening round, became a national case in point), complicating endless challenges like the Corsican independence movement.
The movement’s symbolic home is here in this modest mountain village, a speck in the middle of the island with a population of about 6,000 that is swelled in summer by hikers and discount tourists. Besides the university Corte has a historical museum, lately revamped, in the town citadel. Seeking to ease tensions in Corsica the French government supported having both the museum and the university in Corte to acknowledge island sentiments.
It was here that Pasquale Paoli, the George Washington of Corsica, rebelled against Genoese rule in the 18th century and established an independent government for Corsica, establishing the first constitutional democracy in Europe, Corsicans like to boast. Paoli also founded a university here, in 1765. All that was short lived because Genoese authorities, deciding to rid themselves of the whole Corsican headache, sold the island to France, and the French wasted little time before sending in troops, shutting down the university and driving Paoli into exile.
Today Corte retains the prideful, slightly melancholy air of a town that has largely declined to make peace with change. It calls to mind some Kodachrome view of a bygone postwar Europe. “Morta a lingua, mortu u populu” (“kill the language, kill the people”) reads one message scrawled in Corsican on a wall just off the Rampe Paoli, the main street. “Terra Corsa, Terra Nostra” reads another, with the ubiquitous T-shirt version of ’s face stenciled underneath.
Pascal Ottavi, who grew up nearby and teaches Corsican history at the university, recalled how “everything local used to be devalued completely before the 1960s.” We met over coffee one morning at a sidewalk cafe where elderly Cortesians were happily squabbling in Corsican about the previous night’s soccer matches. “We used to be taught that we had no art or culture, so we have had to spend much of the last 50 years rehabilitating our own heritage,” Mr. Ottavi said. “Now the situation is almost reversed. Corsicans believe everything Corsican has value, which, at a time of globalization, with Corsica’s population rapidly changing, raises questions about the relationship between identity and modernity.”
He elaborated: “What does it mean to be Corsican today? France produces French people because they all share French culture, the French language. Here Corsican, which is basically a dialect of Italian, the language Paoli wrote in, is still forbidden in official matters, so the man at the electric company, who is Corsican, cannot respond in Corsican to a Corsican client who calls him up and speaks to him in Corsican. At the same time, while my daughter doesn’t speak to me in Corsican, she speaks to her grandmother in Corsican, and writes e-mails and text messages exclusively in Corsican.”
I must have looked confused because he said, “The point is that Corsicans want to stay Corsican, but they may no longer be able to tell you what that means.”
Jean-Marc Olivesi echoed that thought later the same day. The chief curator at the Museum of Corsica, he remembered being an elementary school student in Corsica 40 years ago and his history teacher announcing that Corsica had no real architecture because it lacked Gothic churches. “But we had wonderful Baroque churches,” Mr. Olivesi, a Baroque specialist, said. “The thing was, Baroque architecture wasn’t considered French, so it didn’t count.”
Corsicans of course have not been alone in France, much less Europe, in wanting to recover their legacy. At one time Bretons were forbidden to speak their language. Now they study it at state-run public schools. Speaking Catalan in Franco-era Spain landed militant Spaniards in jail. Now it’s required in regional schools, as a first language. Catalans, Corsicans, pieds noirs from Algeria, and Basques all have historical museums of their own today. It’s a paradox of the global age, but also the inevitable consequence of globalization, that regional cultures, like religious and political ones, increasingly assert themselves. They’re the way people preserve a sense of distinctiveness.
“Globalization has to preserve diversity,” was how Maite Goientxe, a Basque representative at the Days of Corte, from Bayonne, in southwestern France, phrased what is also the militants’ most basic demand. “We want Basque to be the official language of our entire region. Language is everything to us, as French is for the French. Like all cultural questions, language is ultimately a political matter. Basque is not permitted today in my part of France, which means Basque representatives from my region can speak Basque at the Parliament in Brussels, but not back home. From our perspective that’s discrimination. Critics say separatists promote division and exclusion, but we say independence movements are about the opposite of exclusion. We want to get rid of the exclusion we feel today.”
One afternoon I found several pensive Kanaks sipping Corsica Cola at the bar in the Days’ main tent. They described how the Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Center in New Caledonia, designed by and opened in 1998, was, like the university here in Corte, another French cultural concession to regionalist unrest. France had conceived the center as part of its peace negotiations with Kanak separatists in the 1980s. It came to be named after Tjibaou, a leader of the Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front assassinated by separatist extremists in 1989, and it helped to “change the political climate” in New Caledonia, “as did our being allowed to speak our own language, which used to be forbidden in schools,” said Rock Haocas, a Kanak representative.
Behind him, in another part of the tent, Corsican speakers stood on a stage and cataloged for an approving crowd a litany of complaints about what they considered unfair French restrictions on Corsican hunters, French discrimination against Corsican fishermen and more.
Paul Fleming, a Sinn Fein representative who was listening, took the long view. “Every country has its own culture, and each struggle has its own dynamic,” he told me. “It’s not so much reacting against globalization as it is about embracing your culture. National movements are often defined as being against the greater good, but they ultimately thrive beside other cultures. It comes down to self-determination.”
Europe has gone through cyclical upheavals, culturally speaking. In the 19th century, rising modern states obliterated local cultures to fortify national identities only to pave the way for their revival at the end of that century. The same happened during the last century when the Soviets and Franco’s Spain, along with the British empire, imposed cultures on diverse peoples who, as soon as the opportunities arose, reasserted their own identities in more or less explicitly political protest.
But now cultural identities are fragmenting more than ever. As the Days wound down in August, Alba Nova, a Corsican band, was on tap. One of its singers, Ange-François Alasta (he gave me his name in French, but it’s Anghjulu Francescu on the band’s blog), was sitting at a picnic table near the barbecue a few hours beforehand. At 27 he comes from Ajaccio, the capital of Corsica, as do the other members of Alba Nova, he said. Like them he grew up with the nationalist movement.
“We lost our language and culture to France, so we wanted to revive them,” Mr. Alasta said. And then he described how Corsican bands, singing in Corsican, began to flourish during the 1970s as part of what he called “the larger political independence movement.” They began by combing the island, recording locals singing traditional songs. The Corsican group I Muvrini was among those capitalizing on this rediscovered music, briefly reaching the crest of the world-music wave by marrying Corsican folk to global pop, and recording hits like “Fields of Gold” with .
But Mr. Alasta represents the next generation. “Corsican music became too linked to nationalism,” he said. “As a young Corsican musician I feel that I want to stay Corsican, but at the same time I need to belong to this moment. There’s a confusion of cultural identity now.”
Ultimately that’s the challenge for both globalists and those who gather at events like the Days. Culture is now a matter of individual choice. And those choices are only multiplying.
By Mikael Kimmelman for the New york Times
Pierre Desorgues contributed reporting.