Bombs have been exploding across France, in Nice and in Ajaccio, Corsica’s second city. Yet, few foreigners pay these events any attention.
In the year 2000, when the last official statistics were available, armed groups active inside France undertook 197 violent actions including 24 assassinations and 14 attempted ones.
It is not al-Qaida’s fault. If it were, the events may have gained more publicity. Rather, the perpetrators were the clans of Corsica: Corsica Nazione, Armata Corsa, the FNLC and Indipenza.
Corsica has had a long and violent history in its search for self-determination. From its occupation by the Vandals in 590 AD to the subsequent intervention by Pope Gregory and further on, the conflict continues unabated.
On 6 July 2003, the Corsican population went to the polls in the latest attempt to find a workable situation for the island. President Chirac’s conservative UMP government floated the possibility of a Scottish-style assembly and extra autonomy for Corsica.
The referendum question itself left substantial room for interpretation that both sides of the debate exploited to the utmost. The ballot question was; “Yes or No, are you in favour of a unique Corsican institution to decentralise power to the island.”
The answer was `no` by the marginal 50.98% to 49.02% of the vote.
Head of President Chirac’s party,
The result was a disaster for Chirac and his Francophiles as well as for the island’s separatists. The competing camps on both sides of the debate were each split by the referendum question.
The UMP was divided between those who saw the referendum as an unwelcome leeching of power from the centralised French state, and others, including Chirac, who saw his “experiment in limited autonomy” as the best chance to keep Corsica as part of France.
One day after the vote result, anti-separatist UMP deputy, Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, triumphantly told the nation that, “in saying `no`, the Corsican population have shown their long term attachment to the French Republic. They have clearly said that they do not want to be some political experiment-by-statute.”
Likewise, the nationalist movement in Corsica was also split. Some saw the referendum as a first step to more political control over the island while others, such as lawyer and independence campaigner Jean-Guy Talamoni, saw it as an attempt by Chirac “to divide the separatist movement.”
After the votes were counted, it was clear that neither side had won.
At the heart of the debate, and violence, lie the social conditions on Corsica, the poorest region in France. The terrain is dry and harsh. Mountains occupy the centre of the island making farming a tough and uncompromising struggle. Yet, 76.7% of the islanders depend on agriculture for their living.
Unemployment is officially around 15% and climbing, staying at almost double the national average. Salaries are between 20-30% below those in the rest of France whilst the population is aging rapidly; by 2010, those over 60 years of age will outnumber those under 20.
One sure sign of the long-term poverty that has afflicted Corsica is the number of the people who emigrate. The 30km square island has a population of 260,000 yet the Corsican Diaspora, or `Corses de l`exteriur`, are numbered anywhere from 800,000 to 1.5 million people.
There are Corsican communities on Puerto Rico, in Venezuela, and on the Antilles Islands as well as in France.
Many of the Corsicans living on the French mainland have formed groups whose aim is to help the island. They came together, in Paris, before and after the vote to demand better conditions for their relatives and families under the banner of the National Federation for Corsican Groups.
Calls were made to the government to remember “the grandfathers and fathers who left Corsica to fight for France in two world wars, but also the children who leave Corsica now because there is nowhere for them to study on their own island. Also the amounts of money, often disproportionably large, that the `corses de l’exterieur` bring back to the island for their relatives.”
There was also criticism for the island’s politicians “who spend all their time in Paris but still try and qualify for the special Corsican tax breaks. This, while ordinary folk on the island are so angry with the system that they will not register to vote.”
The island’s violence is not caused by the actions of only one faction. The main nationalist group, the FLNC (Front de Liberation National de Corse), has often been opposed by others like `Armata Corsa` `Cuncolta` `Resistenza` `Accolta naziunalista corsa` (ANC) and the `Mouvement Pour Autodetermination` (MPA).
As is the case in other countries, such as Columbia, some Corsican armed groups resorted to criminal activity to finance their operations. Involvement in the drug trade as well as bank robberies, extortions and kidnappings are some of the accusations levelled against them.
During 1996, a string of internecine wars over money, power and drugs erupted in Corsica. First, Jean-Pierre Leca and Luc Belloni of the MPA were killed in April. Then, Stephane Gallo of the FNLC was assassinated in May. The deaths of Nicholas Bachelli and Vincent Delcerocca of Cuncolta and Antione and Frederic Giacomoni of the MPA followed in July. And so, it went on all year.
One of the French police cars
Between 1994 and 2000, the island’s various armed groups carried out 3000 acts of violence including bombings, killings, beatings, kidnappings and armed raids. However, one act stood out above all others. On 6 February 1998, a masked gunman assassinated the island’s chief state representative, prefect Claude Erignac.
This killing marked a change in the relations between France and Corsica. The state was scared of the growing number of killings and the Corsican public became fed up with the increasing levels of violence and gangsterism.
In 1999, a protest against violence drew a crowd of 45,000 to Ajaccio.
Not only was the violence often not political in nature but it was also extremely frequent. Corsicans who had sympathised with the aggressive nationalist tactics now turned their backs on those who used them. In the 1994 elections, the nationalist groups took 25% of the vote. By 2000, those votes had halved.
In 2003, the rejection of the referendum and the ending of some short-lived cease-fires by the various separatist groups have raised doubts about the future stability of the island. Bombs have been exploded outside tax offices in Nice as well as government buildings in Ajaccio.
On 24 August, 50 year old Maurice Galvani, an FLNC supporter and a former activist who had spent six years in jail in 1987 for making explosives, was driving his car in the centre of Ajaccio. A car drew up alongside him while a man leaned over and fired two shots into Galvani’s head from point blank range.
This was just another bloody assassination on the streets of Corsica, the island of forgotten bombs.