In the run-up to the first round of the French presidential election on April 10, all seemed calm on France’s once troublesome island possession, Corsica.
A period of stability had begun in 2014, when armed organisation the National Liberation Front of Corsica (FNLC) announced an indefinite ceasefire, following the example of Basque Homeland and Freedom (ETA) in the Spanish and French Basque Country.
From 1976, The FNLC was responsible for 4500 acts of violence and the assassinations of French police and functionaries, including chief administrator (prefect) Claude Erignac in 1998.
As in the Basque Country, the upshot of the FNLC’s truce was electoral success for nationalist parties. A win in the 2015 regional poll was repeated in 2017, when the For Corsica coalition gained 41 seats in the newly constituted 63-seat Corsican assembly.
Nationalist forces won 70% of the vote in the 2021 assembly election.
In that context, 2015 French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron made noises about granting extra powers to Corsica’s regional government.
Once elected, however, he forgot about the island, not revisiting it until 2018 — the 20th anniversary of Erignac’s murder.
In a speech on the occasion, Macron rejected any proposal that would concede genuine autonomy — legislative powers separate from those of the French National Assembly — or recognise Corsican as a co-official language with French.
Corsica-France relations stalled, leading to calls from FNLC split-offs for a return to “armed struggle”.
Yves Colonna murder
This stalemate was broken on March 2. That evening, protests broke out in the island’s main cities against a lethal assault earlier in the day on Corsican nationalist identity Yvan (Yves) Colonna, held in Arles high security prison for 18 years.
Colonna, who was attacked by a fellow inmate serving a sentence for a terrorist offence, lapsed into a coma from which he never emerged, dying on March 21.
The 61-year-old Colonna was in jail for life for Erignac’s murder, a charge he always denied. His family had been calling for his transfer from Arles to a jail in Corsica since his imprisonment began.
Gilles Simeoni, premier of Corsica and Colonna’s former lawyer, said that “an individual who was manifestly very dangerous was deliberately left in direct contact with Yvan Colonna”, adding that “the prison administration and the government at the very highest level of the State knew there was a specific risk.”
The March 2 protests were called by independence parties, prisoners’ support associations and student unions. The situation rapidly escalated.
Students blockaded the University of Corsica on March 3 and called a mass assembly to which all nationalist forces and organisations were invited, “to chart the way forward for mobilisation”.
At the meeting, the parliamentary leaders of Corsican nationalism (including Simeoni) were questioned as to what they would do in response to an assault that had replaced the Russian invasion of Ukraine as the island’s main topic of conversation.
One student at the meeting, cited in the March 4 edition of the French daily Líberation, said: “For us, the attack on Yvan Colonna is the biggest event we’ve ever known, it touches the Corsican people: we have elected representatives, but our demands are not being listened to by the [French] government.”
The mass assembly adopted three demands: truth and justice about Colonna’s murder, freedom or transfer to Corsica for political prisoners, and recognition of Corsica’s right to self-determination.
Waterside workers in the capital Ajaccio prevented a ferry from the mainland from docking on March 4, on the suspicion that it carried French reinforcements, specifically the hated Republican Security Brigades (CRS).
On the islands’ walls, the initials FF — standing for Francesi fora (French out) — began reappearing like mushrooms after rain.
Violent clashes between demonstrators and the CRS in Ajaccio, Bastia (the seaside capital of Upper Corsica), and inland Corti (the historical capital) occurred in the week ending March 6. It culminated in a March 6 march in Corti, with 10,000 chanting “Statu francesu assassinu” (“French state, murderous state”).
Nearly all high schools on the island were blockaded from March 7 onwards, with students holding daily demonstrations in town centres. The Ajaccio courthouse and a tax office were partially burnt after groups attacked them with Molotov cocktails.
Students lead revolt
The main feature of the protests was youth participation, with university and high-school students leading mobilisations. Anger was overwhelmingly directed against the French government, held responsible for Colonna’s murder, whether through neglect or complicity.
But many also regard Corsica’s own politicians, including Simeoni, as weak in fighting for Corsican demands. In contrast, Colonna is seen as a heroic martyr for the nation’s rights.
One common reaction that typified the alienation of some younger Corsicans is their disgust at their leaders’ “humiliation” in allowing themselves to be frisked by French presidential security before Macron’s 2018 speech.
More broadly, in the words of André Fazi, political scientist at the University of Corsica, “the young people are outraged by the inability of the [French] government to really negotiate around the demands of the nationalists, who are presently in government with a degree of backing unprecedented in Europe.”
Why, for example, was 15-year-old Stella demonstrating? “I’m here because I know a bit about the history of Yvan Colonna from my mother and because this concerns us, the Corsicans. It’s also a way of saying we have our own language, our culture, our land, that we exist.”
An older nationalist activist told Líberation: “I’ve never seen a mobilisation of this breadth, with this rhythm and intensity, with so many people — and so young — on the streets.”
After a further week of protests and conflict, the March 13 demonstration in Bastia exceeded that of Corti — with 13,000 present according to organisers. It ended in clashes between the police and demonstrators, with 102 injured (of whom 77 were police).
A spokesperson for the Unité-SG-FO police union claimed that its members were dealing with a “quasi-insurrectional” situation.
On the same day, an Ifop poll in the daily Corse Matin showed that 53% of those questioned across France favoured increased autonomy for Corsica, while 35% would accept the island becoming independent — the highest figure yet registered in polling on the issue.
The French government of Prime Minister Jean Castex could not just wait for this storm to pass.
Attorney general Gérald Darmanin arrived on Corsica on March 16 to announce that “we are prepared to go as far as autonomy” — so long as the violence ended. However, what “autonomy” might mean would have to be discussed.
Castex had previously announced that there would be a special inquiry into the assault on Colonna and that the two other Corsicans in jail for Erignac’s murder would have their prisoner classification changed to allow them to be transferred to Corsica.
The FNLC, which unlike ETA has not dissolved, issued a statement that seemed to threaten a return to action: “Disregard generates anger and anger entails revolt. And, with us, revolt produces insurrection.”
All this meant that the Corsican revolt and autonomy is now a theme in the French presidential campaign.
The candidates of the right were horrified. Sébastian Chenu, MP for Marine Le Pen’s National Confluence, said: “To move from the murder of a prefect to the promise of autonomy — can there be a more catastrophic message? I reject Emmanuel Macron’s cynical clientelism breaking up the integrity of French territory.”
By contrast, leading left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, once opposed to Corsican autonomy, now supported it, given the clear nationalist majority in the Corsican assembly.
However, for French Communist Party candidate Fabien Roussel, autonomy should be rejected because “it’s not going to fill Corsican fridges”.
New Anticapitalist Party candidate Philippe Poutou identified with the protests: “For us, this is an example to follow.
“When you go beserk, the government shakes, and those in power realise they’ve gone too far.”
On Corsica, the young people driving the protest have drawn the same conclusion. Philippe, a member of Ghjuventù Libera (Free Youth), said: “We’ve accomplished more in the nights of three weeks than the autonomists and independentists in five years of regional government.”
[Dick Nichols is Green Left’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. A more detailed version of this article will be posted on the web site of Links — International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]