As the first round of France’s April 10 presidential election approached, all seemed calm on France’s once troublesome island possession, Corsica.
A period of stability began in 2014, when the armed organization of the National Liberation Front of Corsica (FNLC) announced an indefinite ceasefire, like Patrie basque et liberté (ETA) in the Spanish and French Basque Country.
From 1976, the FNLC was responsible for 4,500 acts of violence and the assassinations of French police and civil servants, including the chief administrator (prefect) Claude Erignac in 1998.
As in the Basque Country, the truce of the FNLC resulted in the electoral success of the nationalist parties. A victory in the 2015 regional ballot was repeated in 2017, when the Pour la Corse coalition won 41 seats in the new 63-seat Corsican assembly.
Nationalist forces won 70% of the vote in the 2021 assembly elections.
In this context, the candidate for the French presidency of 2015, Emmanuel Macron, made noises about the granting of additional powers to the regional government of Corsica.
Once elected, however, he forgot about the island, only revisiting it in 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 recognize Corsican as a co-official language alongside French.
Corsica-France relations are at a standstill, leading to calls from FNLC splits for a return to “armed struggle”.
Murder of Yves Colonna
This deadlock was lifted on March 2. That evening, protests erupted in the main towns of the island against a deadly attack earlier in the day against Corsican identity nationalist Yvan (Yves) Colonna, detained in the high security prison in Arles since 18 years old.
Colonna, who was attacked by a fellow inmate serving time for a terrorism offence, fell into a coma from which he never recovered, dying on March 21.
Colonna, 61, was in prison for life for Erignac’s murder, a charge he has always denied. His family had been demanding his transfer from Arles to a remand center in Corsica since the start of his incarceration.
Gilles Simeoni, Prime Minister of Corsica and former lawyer for Colonna, said that “an obviously very dangerous individual was voluntarily left in direct contact with Yvan Colonna”, adding that “the prison administration and the government at the highest level of the state knew there was a specific risk.
The March 2 protests were called by pro-independence parties, prisoner support associations and student unions. The situation quickly escalated.
The students blockaded the University of Corsica on March 3 and called a mass assembly to which all nationalist forces and organizations were invited, “to chart the way forward for mobilization”.
At the meeting, parliamentary leaders of Corsican nationalism (including Simeoni) were asked what they would do in response to an assault that had replaced the Russian invasion of Ukraine as the main topic of conversation on the island.
A student at the meeting, quoted in the March 4 edition of the French daily Releasedeclared: “For us, the Yvan Colonna attack is the greatest event we have known, it affects the Corsican people: we have elected officials, but our demands are not listened to by the [French] government.”
The mass assembly adopted three demands: truth and justice on Colonna’s murder, freedom or transfer to Corsica of political prisoners, and recognition of Corsica’s right to self-determination.
Workers living near the capital Ajaccio prevented a ferry from the mainland from docking on March 4, suspected that it was carrying French reinforcements, in particular the hated Republican Security Brigades (CRS).
On the walls of the islands, the initials FF — meaning Francesi forums (French out) — began to reappear like mushrooms after the rain.
Violent clashes between protesters and CRS in Ajaccio, Bastia (the seaside capital of Haute-Corse) and the interior of Corti (the historic capital) occurred in the week ending March 6. They culminated in a March 6 march in Corti, with 10,000 chanting “Status francesu murdered(“French state, murderous state”).
Almost all high schools on the island were blocked from March 7, with students staging daily protests in town centres. Ajaccio’s courthouse and a tax office were partially set on fire after groups attacked them with Molotov cocktails.
Students lead the revolt
The main feature of the protests was the participation of young people, with university and high school students leading mobilizations. The anger was overwhelmingly directed at the French government, held responsible for Colonna’s murder, whether through negligence or complicity.
But many also see Corsican politicians, including Simeoni, as weak in the fight for Corsican demands. On the other hand, Colonna is considered a heroic martyr for the rights of the nation.
A common reaction that characterizes the alienation of some young Corsicans is their disgust at the “humiliation” of their leaders by allowing themselves to be searched by French presidential security ahead of Macron’s 2018 speech.
More broadly, in the words of André Fazi, a political scientist at the University of Corsica, “young people are outraged by the inability of [French] government to really negotiate around the demands of the nationalists, who are currently in government with an unprecedented degree of support in Europe.
Why, for example, was Stella, 15, protesting? “I’m here because I know a bit about Yvan Colonna’s story from my mother and because it concerns us Corsicans. It is also a way of saying that we have our own language, our culture, our land, that we exist.
A former nationalist activist said Release: “I have never seen a mobilization of this magnitude, with this rhythm and this intensity, with so many people – and so young – in the streets.”
After another week of protests and conflicts, the demonstration of March 13 in Bastia exceeded that of Corti – with 13,000 present according to the organizers. It ended in clashes between the police and demonstrators, leaving 102 injured (including 77 police officers).
A spokesperson for the Unite-SG-FO police union said its members were facing a “quasi-insurrectionary” situation.
The same day, an Ifop poll in the daily Corsica Morning showed that 53% of people polled across France were in favor of increased autonomy for Corsica, while 35% would accept the island becoming independent – the highest figure ever recorded in polls on the issue.
The French government of Prime Minister Jean Castex could not simply wait for this storm to pass.
Attorney General Gérald Darmanin arrived in Corsica on March 16 to announce that “we are ready to go as far as autonomy” – provided that the violence stops. However, what “autonomy” might mean should be discussed.
Castex had previously announced that there would be a special investigation into the Colonna attack and that the other two Corsicans imprisoned for the murder of Erignac would have their prisoner status changed to allow their transfer to Corsica.
The FNLC, which unlike ETA has not been dissolved, issued a statement that seemed to threaten a return to action: “Contempt breeds anger and anger breeds revolt. And, with us, revolt produces insurrection.
All this meant that the Corsican revolt and autonomy is now a theme of the French presidential campaign.
Right-wing candidates were horrified. Sebastian Chenu, MP for Marine Le Pen’s Confluence Nationale, said: “Going from the assassination of a prefect to the promise of autonomy, can there be a more catastrophic message? I reject the cynical clientelism of Emmanuel Macron breaking the integrity of the French territory.
On the other hand, the left-wing leader candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, formerly opposed to Corsican autonomy, now supports it, given the clear nationalist majority in the Corsican assembly.
However, for the candidate of the French Communist Party Fabien Roussel, autonomy is to be rejected because “it will not fill the Corsican fridges”.
Philippe Poutou, new candidate of the Anti-Capitalist Party, identifies with the protesters: “For us, this is an example to follow.
“When you go mad, the government shakes and those in power realize they’ve gone too far.”
On Corsica, the young drivers of the protest drew the same conclusion. Philippe, a member of Ghjuventù Libera (Free Youth), said: “We have accomplished more in the night of three weeks than the autonomists and separatists 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.]