Driving school

What is driving nationalist violence on the French island of Corsica?

A brutal prison attack on prominent Corsican nationalist Yvan Colonna has brought thousands to the streets in protest against the French state. Students, but also schoolchildren from the age of 12, lead the angry and sometimes violent demonstrations.

Between 7,000 and 10,000 people marched through the northern city of Bastia on Sunday, responding to nationalists’ call for the immediate release of political prisoners, more autonomy for the island and better recognition of the Corsican people and their language.

But once again the demonstration turned violent when several hundred hooded youths attacked the prefecture, set fire to a tax office, set fire to the national tricolor flag and hurled projectiles at the police.

It is the latest in a series of clashes between islanders and police, prompting France’s interior minister to announce he will visit Corsica on Wednesday and Thursday this week.

“Calm must be restored immediately,” the minister said in a statement.

But it will take more than instructions from Paris to quell the rage that has been mounting since March 2, when imprisoned nationalist Yvan Colonna was brutally assaulted by a fellow prisoner serving time for terrorist offences.

Colonna is serving his life for the 1998 murder of Claude Erignac, who, as prefect of Corsica, embodied the power of the French state on an island with a history of separatist violence.

The former shepherd, seen by some as a symbol of resistance to the French state, is still in a coma.

resist colonialism

The demonstrations, organized by nationalist groups and student unions, attracted a large part of Corsican society.

“Corsican nationalism has become much more popular and has gone beyond politics, appealing to all social classes and ages,” political scientist Thierry Dominici told RFI.

The rioters are however mostly young people: middle and high school students and students.

“This social category has not experienced armed violence [from the 70s to turn of the century] but they are involved in a struggle – resisting France as a colonial state,” Dominici said.

Most had not even been born at the time of Erignac’s murder.

“I was only a year old in 1998, but the Yvan Colonna affair lasted for years: the trial, the demonstrations in Ajaccio and Bastia, it marked our childhood”, says Pierre-Joseph Paganelli, 24. , president of the nationalist student union party Cunsulta di a Ghjuventu Corsa (CGC).

“Our activism was built on that, we learned about political prisoners, we grew up with it.”

Last Monday, nearly 50 high schools and colleges, as well as the university, were affected by blockages.

truth and justice

Recent protests have centered around Colonna being held in a prison on the mainland due to his “special status” known as a DPS.

For years, nationalists had called for him to be transferred to a prison in Corsica to be close to his family and friends – a request that French authorities refused on the grounds that the island’s only prison could not provide surveillance. sufficient.

In December 2020, the national commission in charge of renewing the DPS status recommended its lifting, but Prime Minister Jean Castex canceled the decision.

“If he had been transferred, the attack would not have taken place,” Paganelli told RFI on the Corte line – where the main campus of the University of Corsica is located.

The circumstances of the attack also shocked many islanders: Colonna was beaten, strangled and strangled for more than eight minutes in the gymnasium of what was believed to be a high-security unit.

“How could they be alone together for so long and how could such an act have happened without the intervention of the prison guards?” asks Paganelli, echoing the sentiments of many Corsicans.

“We demand truth and justice.”

Statute English Assassinu

The demonstrators brandish the nationalist slogan “Statu Francese Assassinu” (The French State is an assassin).

“We express our indignation and our anger,” says Paganelli. “The state interfered in justice by blocking the transfer of Colonna and other political prisoners. We therefore consider that the State is jointly responsible for what happened.

The French anti-terror prosecutor’s office has announced the opening of an official investigation into what has been described as a “terrorist crime”.

And last Tuesday, Prime Minister Castex said Colonna’s DPS status would be lifted, paving the way for his transfer to the island.

Castex has yet to visit the island as prime minister and his act was seen as a provocation.

“They lifted the status because indeed Colonna can no longer be considered a danger, he is in a coma; it is not a political act,” says Paganelli. “It poured oil on the fire and made people even more angry.

On Wednesday evening, protesters set fire to the courtroom in the capital Ajaccio.

Dominici says islanders feel the government has behaved “with disdain”.

appeasement

On Friday, Prime Minister Castex made an additional gesture by announcing that the DPS status of the two other detainees of the “commando of Érignac” – Pierre Alessandri and Alain Ferrandi – would also be lifted, allowing their return to the island.

Paganelli welcomed the announcement but said it was far from enough.

“We demand that political prisoners be released on bail – which the law provides – and that the Corsican issue be put on the table.”

One month before the presidential elections, “we are at a crucial moment,” he said. “It is time to introduce the Corsican question into the debate because we have the impression that we do not count and that everything we do is useless.”

President Macron has said he is open to adding specific mention of Corsica to the French Constitution, but has rejected broader demands for autonomy.

Feeling of abandonment

Since 2015, the nationalists have made significant gains at the polls and now hold around 70% of the island’s regional assembly.

But the youngsters haven’t noticed much of a change.

Recent data suggests that a quarter of the 16 to 29 age group is either unemployed or inactive, and has fewer opportunities than in mainland France.

For Armand Occhiolini, president of the Ghjuventu Paolina student union, “the nationalists, and the Corsican people as a whole, are not sufficiently considered by the state”.

“We want to be able to develop our island. Young people have seen nationalists win elections, but they don’t bring us anything,” the 20-year-old said. The cross newspaper. “So what’s the point of protesting via institutions? There is a risk that the violence will escalate.

Paganelli agrees change needs to happen faster, which means increasing the pressure on Paris.

“We supported the nationalists in 2015 and 2017, but there were few responses to our demands, so inevitably there is a feeling of abandonment.”

Nationalism has historically expressed itself in three ways: through struggles at the institutional level, at the grassroots level, and through armed struggle – which was definitively abandoned in 2014 when the FLNC laid down its arms.

“When the nationalists came to power, the struggle on the ground was also abandoned,” says Paganelli, “but if we limit ourselves to the institutional struggle, violence will return. This is obviously not desirable.

Molotov cocktail

Violence is back: young protesters use Molotov cocktails, metal petanque balls, iron bars and dumbbells, according to police.

There were dozens of injuries on both sides.

Local media reported children as young as 10 taking part in the riots.

“I am for violence,” Antoine, 14, told Corse net infos during Sunday’s protest in Bastia. “It’s better to bait the riot police than to let them drink coffee from their vans.”

For others, violence is unacceptable.

“Not everyone is there to support Yvan and his family, some don’t even know who he is, they are there to hit the cops, it’s like a video game for them”, regrets high school student Julie, also running on Sunday. .

explosive situation

Pierre-Ange, an activist in the Bastia youth nationalist movement, told RFI that the police were making the situation worse.

“A young man from Ajaccio received an LBD rubber bullet in the head, he has scars from ear to ear, his life is ruined,” the 22-year-old cursed.

“Another youth was shot in the neck. And yet they say that it is us who are at fault, that we must not demonstrate because we are not in the [Colonna] family or otherwise. It’s not true, everyone feels concerned,” he said.

“The struggle has been going on for 50 years. Our parents, grandparents and ancestors fought to defend our land and we cannot let that go to waste.

Gilles Simeoni, the autonomist president of the executive council of Corsica, called for calm and asked young people not to put themselves in danger.

If he welcomed the change in the status of the prisoners, he argued that this would not be enough to calm “the explosive situation” on the island.

He called on Paris for new strong and immediate gestures, in particular a parliamentary commission of inquiry to investigate the attack on Yvan Colonna with “guarantees of impartiality and independence”.