The ugly side of the île de beauté

The violence of Corsican nationalism has not vanished, but the movement has integrated itself into island politics

At least six people have been killed in inter-clan violence in Corsica since the beginning of the year. Daylight shootings between rival factions have joined attacks on villas to tarnish the image of the île de beauté, whose popularity with tourists has never been higher.

For most French people, those events hardly came as a surprise or a shock. Corsica’s recent history can after all be summed up in a long series of acts of violence associated with the island’s pro-independence activists and one of the most dangerous mafias in the world.

The milieu corse, as it is known, is a powerful mafia network that has been involved in heroin trafficking, prostitution and gambling since the start of the 20th century. The milieu was at the heart of the “French Connection” international heroin traffic in the 1960s and 1970s.

Today, several gangs are still active on the island. Gangs such as the former Armata Corsa, Brise de Mer and the Gang du Petit Bar (the latter two named after the bars used as headquarters) were involved in dozens of murders, armed thefts and robberies. Links between the killings and nationalist movements are undeniable, but some would argue that the clashes deal not with the battle of political ideas, but with control of the black market.

With a 3.1 per cent average growth of GDP per year, Corsica has experienced the fastest growth in France in the past 20 years. Employment has also increased more than anywhere else in France. While all other regions of France experienced shrinking economies between 2007-09, Corsica bucked the recession, growing 2.4 per cent during this period.

But if recent years have been good for the island’s economy, it has long been one of France’s poorest regions.

With a population of 307,000, Corsica is metropolitan France’s smallest region. Isolated, with almost no industry and a weakening agriculture, the island survives on tourism and construction.

While the island’s increasing prosperity makes the vision of an independent Corsica more tempting for nationalists, it was poverty that initially spurred the independence movement.

During the 18th century, the island had become an autonomous republic, before being handed over to France by the Genoese Republic, a former independent state of Italy, in 1768.

Geographically, Corsica’s link with Italy is even stronger, because it shares this part of the Mediterranean with Sardinia, an autonomous region of Italy.

But culturally, Corsica has a strong regional identity with traditions of its own, a language of its own and a real determination to assert its difference.

After the French Revolution, Corsica was officially declared a part of France and seemed to follow a similar pattern of integration as other regions assimilated at the time.

But the 20th century revived buried tensions as the region’s economy dwindled.

Unemployment and the lack of prospects drove people away, leaving Corsica with a falling population. Between the mid-1930s and mid-1950s, the population fell from more than 320,000 to just over 190,000. The 1960s saw a small increase through immigration from North Africa, and Algeria in particular, but the population fell significantly again towards the end of the decade.

Economical problems and emigration are often listed as the salient causes behind the growth in nationalism in the 1960s.

Isolation and poverty led to more demands for autonomy in certain aspects of the island's life, including its economy.

In 1975, a key event triggered the modern independence movement. That year, the police sent helicopters, light tanks and 2,000 men to solve a dangerous stand-off between a group of armed men and the owner of a winemaking property accused of financial scam.

The event, known today as Aléria, led to the deaths of two policemen, while protests in Bastia against the intervention resulted in one death and 16 people wounded.

Within a year, an official nationalist movement (Front de Libération Nationale Corse, or FLNC) was created and began a series of attacks. Over the years, the group has splintered into smaller factions spreading violence and becoming interlinked with organised crime.

Most attacks consisted of damaging or destroying state and institutions buildings throughout the region. Casabianda prison, a unique detention centre where prisoners are allowed freedom of movement in a huge surrounding park, was partly destroyed in the 1990s and early 2000s by nationalists.

Assaults on individuals became more common in the 1990s, and inter-gang rivalry caused at least 20 deaths between 1994-96.

The murder of the region’s prefect, Claude Erignac, in 1998 was the highest-profile act of violence and outraged France. While a ceasefire was agreed between the government and nationalist movements in 1999, small scale violence continued.

Despite violence, Corsica has obtained some special powers to account for its unique status. It gained its own independent assembly of 51 councillors in 1982. This was followed by the Joxe law, which came into force in 1991, creating the Collectivité Territoriale de Corse (CTC), which had more powers that standard French regional councils.

Since 2002, after a new law reinforcing powers, the CTC gained control over areas of education, energy, housing benefits, culture, tourism, forests, rail, ports and airports, and was allowed to provide help to businesses and define its own fiscal regime.

Today, six public agencies are responsible for applying the CTC policies throughout Corsica: the economic development, environmental, transport, tourism, farming and rural and water equipment agencies.

In 2010, a coalition of several moderate nationalist parties united under the name Inseme-PNC and came in third in regional elections, with 11 seats in the Assembly while left-wing parties secured 24 seats and the UMP 12.

Gilles Millet, a journalist at Corsica magazine said: “There are two currents in nationalism: a moderate one with the PNC (Partitu di a Nazione Corsa), whose leader is Jean-Christophe Angelini and who is a bright and rather modern guy, and François Alfonsi who is a European MP. This is the most organised moderate party. These are people totally opposed to violence.

“At the regional elections, they joined with another movement that was not as organised but played an important part in the thinking process: A Chjama Naziunale. The leaders were Jean Biancucci and Gilles Simeoni. The alliance made huge progress in the elections and it was the first time there were so many nationalists in the assembly,” he said.

“At the same time, there is the nationalist movement, the heir of the FLNC: Corsica Libera. Their main difference is that they never dissociated themselves from the FLNC. They are want independence, while the others want reform. They have very definite ideas on language and other topics.

“Corsica’s problem at the moment is that it is being bought off. Corsica Libera thinks that no one should be able to build or buy anything in Corsica unless they have lived there at least 10 years.”

Millet explained that, although the nationalists had no majority control over the assembly, their concerns had crept into Corsica’s political life with such themes as the protection and ownership of land.

“Since the 1970s, nationalism, after many incidents, has become the centre of political life. We are reaching a point now where all the nationalist themes have been taken over by the left- and the right-wing parties.

“The strength of the nationalists is the idea of preserving Corsica’s identity, which does not really exist any more, especially since things are going to hell here so at many levels. The criminality is astounding,” he said.

In 2002, the research director at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Jean-Louis Briquet, pointed out the difference between Corsican nationalism and other such movements in France.

“Corsica is the only French region in which protest movements based on demands about identity have managed to establish themselves in the political scene in the long term,” he wrote.

“At the same time, their legitimacy has been largely contested: in the name of the means used by some of them (violence) and the goals that some assign to their fight (independence). But Corsican nationalism has none the less become a fully fledged participant of the island’s political scene, able to gain the support of a significant part of the population.

“This is how it evolved from an extreme protest against the official politics to become an insider in this system, which has deeply changed as a result.”