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How Italy Lost the "French" Riviera...and the 35th ISHLT Annual Meeting

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Luciano Potena, MD, PhD
University of Bologna
Bologna ITALY

Nice is the fifth largest French city, its airport is the third largest in the country, and has a hotel room availability, second only to Paris. In addition to these "grandeur" features, Nice is in the heart of one of the "Nice"-st and most glamorous coastal areas in Europe. Despite this environment, the meeting Dr. Zuckermann and his Program Committee have put together is likely to prompt more delegates in the meeting rooms than on the beachfront promenade. However, if you find yourself jogging around before the sunrise symposia (or coming back after a brave night), just west of the Conference Center, you will cross a wide XVIII Century square with a large fountain surmounted by a tall statue of Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Italian hero (known also as the hero of the two worlds because of his revolutionary actions in South America and in Europe). Garibaldi, heading a revolutionary red-shirted army of about a thousand people, battled in the south of Italy conquering the kingdom of the two Sicilies, bringing these territories to be annexed by the kingdom of Piedmont and Sardinia, to establish the kingdom of Italy in 1861 [Figure 1]. Thus, how come that a French city is giving such emphasis to an Italian Father of the Nation?

Garibaldi was born in Nice (Nizza or Nissa how it was called back then) in 1807 when the city was part of the Kingdom of Piedmont and Sardinia and its inhabitants were considering themselves as Italians. Indeed the city of Nizza had been clearly part of the Italian cultural and political area since the VII century when, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire joined Genoa in a league of independent Liguria cities. Moreover, in 1391, the Independent City of Nizza signed a treaty of protection with the Duke of Savoy, the ancestor of Piedmont-Sardinia royal family, establishing that he and his successors would have never let other Princes rule the city. However, the old Duke and Nice citizens would have never imagined the web of political interests that brought Garibaldi to achieve French citizenship after conquering Italy.

The story stems as one of the consequences of Russian expansive policy towards south-western coastal areas of the Black Sea, leading France and UK to fight the Crimea war in 1853-56. In those years, the Kingdom of Sardinia (Piedmont) was supporting the Italian nationalists ideologies to foster its expansive ambitions towards Milan and Venice regions that were part of the Austrian-Hungarian empire. However the kingdom was too small to ever imagine a regular war against Austrians. Crimea war, however, was a good chance to play a role in the Western European Arena and be part of an international coalition. Aiming to build a long-term alliance with Napoleon III, the France emperor nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, Vittorio Emanuele II, the king of Sardinia sent troops to Crimea side-by-side with the French army (and sent also his 16 yr-old nice to marry Napoleon's cousin). Russia lost the war, and western European Kingdoms reinforced their influence on the Black Sea and Turkish Empire, with mild support from Austria. In this setting, the Piedmont Prime Minister, Sir Camillo Count of Cavour, gained importance and started secret negotiates with Napoleon, negotiating for French support, including troops and funding, in a war against Austria to conquer Venice and Milan. In return taxes from the new territories would be levied to cover the loans interests, and Nice and Savoyshire were to come under French control in an effort to justify military involvement in the eyes French court and in public opinion.

At those times, after the conservative "Vienna restoration" following the French revolution, European democracy was a light entity, formally declared in the monarchial constitutions by the recognition of parliaments elected by people. However, public opinion, people's wills, and polls were often "managed" following the Kings' and governments' interests.

In 1859 the Piedmont-France plot started with people's rallies in Tuscany and Modena Dukedoms, areas controlled by Austrians, and fostered by Piedmont secret services. These served as an excuse to declare war against the Austrian empire. French armies quickly conquered Lombardia (Milan region), but because of hostile feelings from the United Kingdom and Germany towards his Italian policy, Napoleon quickly asked the Austrian Emperor to sign a peace treaty. France and Austria then established that Lombardia be annexed to Piedmont, Venice area remain a kingdom under Austrian control, Tuscany had to restore an Austrian-friendly prince, and North-Central Italy had to be established as a Confederation of states headed by the pope. This plan, initially accepted by Vittorio Emanuele, but not by his prime minister, did not go through, due to riots in Tuscany, Modena, Parma and Bologna that brought these territories to be part of Piedmont, the future Kingdom of Italy.

Despite the new situation being far from that which was agreed upon in the initial France-Piedmont secret agreement, Napoleon pretended his payback with Nice and Savoy. Cavour and Vittorio Emanuele then bravely folded their will to the stronger alley.

Thus, with astonishing hypocrisy, Piedmont supported its expansive policy towards east and central Italy with the support of the right of people self-determination and freedom of Italians from foreign domination, while on the other hand passively leaving eastern territories inhabited by Italians to be ruled by France. The passage of Nice to France, however, had to be formally endorsed by a popular vote. Thus, after replacing all the local administration with French supporting bureaucrats, prohibiting any pro-Italian campaign, and closing all the independent newspapers, Italians from Nice were called to the polls. In the election days, French army and police replaced Piedmont forces to guarantee the "legitimacy" of the polls, and the voting sheets were pre-printed with a "YES" to France annexing, while whoever would have wished to vote "NO" had to write it by himself. The only few "NO" votes were coming from the sailors and soldiers who voted on their ships. Garibaldi, outraged, resigned from his seat in Piedmont parliament.

The ambitions of Cavour and Vittorio Emanuele, however, allowed for the establishment of a unified Italian kingdom in 1861, completed in 1866 with Venice and in 1870 with Rome. This resulted in a colonial policy of Savoy family over the rest of the Country "freed" from foreigners - but forgetting that the Pope and the King of Naples-Sicily were both Italians ruling two legitimate (although not really democratic) states, and that French was the main language spoken at the court of Savoy family until 1861...

Despite it's past, Nice nowadays is happily French, with few remembrances of Italian ancestors. Its history serves as an example of the long-term distance between the real and the declared interests of empowered policymakers of over 150 years ago. Improving our consciousness of living in a real modern democracy where the peoples' will is not manipulated, politicians are honest servants of the Country, and freedom is granted across all social classes... (Any similarity to any current political scenario is purely coincidental... ). ■

Disclosure Statement: The author has no conflicts of interest to disclose.

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