The Strange Popularity of Corsican License Plates

Why the French seem like such aggressive drivers

Ji Lee / The Atlantic

Corsica, the rocky island about 110 miles south of mainland France, has a reputation as a place of deep honor, short tempers, and easy violence.

These are characteristics for which motorists across France would like to be known, apparently. Since 2009, when a new rule permitted French drivers to order license plates from any region, Corsicans, or rather Corsican plates, have been appearing on roads throughout the country. (Under the old system, which was running low on numbers, plates were matched to one’s home region.)

The French can be a bit touchy behind the wheel: flip someone off and he is liable to swerve in front of you, slam on the brakes, hop out, and offer to defend his pride with his fists. Corsican plates, which bear an image of a Moor’s head—the emblem on the island’s coat of arms, as well as the symbol of its small but murderous independence movement—are thought to help avoid this sort of situation, signaling that their owners are not to be honked at, cut off, or otherwise crossed. “It’s becoming a code to show that you’re a rebel and that you’re hot-blooded,” the manager of one plate-maker told Le Figaro last year. Other people suggest that cars with Corsican plates may be less vulnerable to abuse by vandals and bored teenagers. In an interview with Le Parisien, Gabriel Xavier Culioli, a Corsican writer, called the popular image of the island’s residents “grotesque,” and lamented the plates’ appeal to men “who want to pass as tough guys.”

Although Corsica is the least populous of France’s 22 regions, its plates are top sellers across the country, manufacturers and retailers say. Norauto, a chain of repair garages, sold 76,000 Corsican plates in 2013, despite not having an outlet on the island. When I spoke with David Bisinger, the head of sales at one of France’s main license-plate manufacturers, he noted that of the 13 cars parked in his employee lot that day, six had Corsican plates. “I don’t have any Corsicans working for me,” he said.

Whatever the benefits of Corsican plates, Bisinger pointed out that blending in with the locals still has advantages. His own plates are from his native Burgundy, and when he is in Paris, he told me, “I automatically get honked at.” As for Parisians, across the rest of the country they are considered haughty and entitled, and also wimpy drivers. Parisian plates are thought to invite punishment from other motorists. According to Bisinger, no one but a Parisian would dream of buying them.