French government authorities have vowed to crackdown on gangland violence in Corsica in the wake of a flurry of murders on the tiny Mediterranean isle.
Manuel Valls, the French interior minister, and Justice Minister Christiane Taubira made a personal appearance in the Corsican town of Ajaccio following the public assassination of a prominent local businessman named Jacques Nacer, the 17th murder recorded so far this year (making for a total of 39 since the beginning of 2011).
Nacer, a chamber of commerce leader and general secretary of the city's Athletic (football) Club Ajaccio, was shot in broad daylight by a masked gunman as he closed up his shop in the city center. A few weeks ago a prominent Corsican lawyer, Antoine Sollacaro, met his end in a hail of bullets while sitting in his Porsche at a gas station.
Both Nacer and Sollacaro were believed to be linked to Corsican nationalism.
Despite Corsica's renowned pristine beauty and rustic charms, the island has long suffered from the debilitating impact of organized crime, drug trafficking, ancient vendettas, all mixed up with violent separatist nationalism.
With a little more than 300,000 residents, Corsica has Europe's highest murder rate.
According to French government statistics, fully one-fifth of all vendetta-type murders in the country occur in Corsica.
"In Corsica, people know but they do not say," Valls said, in a reference to the vow of silence Corsicans adhere to with respect to reporting incidents to the police.
"Corsica is [a part of] France … It is not a territory apart where we would accept murders and violence."
Taubira noted that only four of the 60 most recent murders in Corsica have led to convictions.
"A minority of murderers, assassins, crooks and mafiosi do not control the territory," she said.
"It's the large majority of Corsicans who control the territory, and they will have the last word."
French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault and Corsica's chief prosecutor, Xavier Bonhomme, both agree that the violence is directly linked to organized crime and luxury property development.
"Business and financial affairs are behind most of the homicides," Ayrault said.
For the past few decades, the seemingly idyllic island has suffered sporadic bouts of violence -- by separatists opposed to French rule, and by mafia-style mobsters.
These three strands of violence have formed the bizarre juxtaposition of a Mediterranean paradise and endless bloodshed.
Perhaps the most high-profile murder in recent years in Corsica took place in 1998, when nationalists assassinated Claude Erignac, the island's prefect, or most senior government official. That murder escalated the political violence in Corsica to a level it had never seen before.
Ruled by France since 1769, Corsica has seen nationalism run like an undercurrent for much of the island’s modern history.
For decades, the Corsican National Liberation Front (FLNC) has waged an on-again, off-again campaign of bombing -- usually targeting holiday homes owned by tourists -- and assassinations to get the message across to Paris.
The current incarnation of the nationalist movement in Corsica can be traced back at least to the 1960s, when the sunset of France's global empire spelled doom for the Corsican economy -- Corsicans represented a disproportionate percentage of the French colonial army and administration (indeed, France's greatest military figure, Napoleon Bonaparte, was himself Corsican).
The collapse of France's rule in Algeria and other African colonies also led to thousands of people (principally, the "pieds-noirs," the French citizens of Algeria) settling in Corsica under a grant from Paris, further enraging the native Corsicans.
By the 1970s, feeling increasingly ignored by the French government, Corsican nationalism embraced violence to reach its goals.
In the wake of the 1975 "Aleria incident" (in which Corsican nationalists battled with French soldiers and gendarmes in the eastern part of the island), the FLNC was formed the following year, and it embarked on a multi-decade bombing campaign, in both Corsica and mainland France, in a quest for independence.
Among other grievances, the FLNC has agitated for greater recognition of the distinct Corsican culture and language, as well as increased economic development, particularly in the agricultural sector, rather than a narrow focus on tourism. The group has also demanded the release of Corsican nationalists from French jails.
The clash between tourism and separatism took a bizarre turn two summers ago, when about 3,000 vacationers were stranded on the island for several hours as nationalists blocked air, sea and road routes in a massive demonstration calling for the transfer of Corsican “political prisoners” from French prisons to local facilities.
However, Corsica’s nationalist movement has undergone a long, slow decline since the 1980s, according to Douglas Yates, assistant professor of political science at the American University of Paris and professor at the American Graduate School in Paris, in part because of the efforts by Paris to offer the island a certain degree of autonomy, and in part because European integration has included a strong regionalization policy.
“Corsicans have more say over their own lives than at any time in modern history, and therefore the sense of urgency is missing,” he said.
“But the strong feelings of being ‘Corsican,’ and therefore different from the mainland French, remains a strong cultural identity, which is susceptible of being used politically by nationalists.”
Yates noted that Paris has attempted to deal with the most dangerous elements of the nationalist movement, particularly armed terrorists, whose car bombs periodically explode, disrupting otherwise long periods of silence.
“Corsican nationalism is a permanent feature of the people who are native to the island, but French nationalism is also a particularly strong force,” Yates added, in reference to the strong tendency from Paris to resist Corsican demands.
“And there are a significant number of people who have moved to the island, such as retirees, who are not native Corsicans.”
Parallel to the nationalist movement, Corsican society also features a much darker trend -- a deeply-entrenched organized-crime culture.
The Unione Corse gang, which operates in both Corsica and the southern French port city of Marseilles, is perhaps best known for its involvement in the infamous French Connection, in which Sicilian Mafiosi transported billions of dollars of heroin into the U.S. from the 1950s to the 1970s. Even before this period, Corsicans had been moving drugs, especially opium, from France’s former colonies in Southeast Asia into Europe and elsewhere.
Aside from drug trafficking, the Corsican mob has been engaged in all the usual Mafia-style criminal activities, including money laundering, racketeering, prostitution and contract murders. As with the Sicilian Mafia, Corsican mobsters have reportedly established mutually beneficial relationships with local political figures.
“The reputation that Corsicans have of criminal activity is, like many stereotypes about the Corsicans, based on a grain of truth, and a lot of prejudice,” Yates commented.
“Corsica, while a beautiful place, has a limited economy, with few real opportunities for employment. Thus high unemployment is a historical factor, which resulted in many Corsicans working in the public sector, and during the age of imperialism, working throughout the French colonial empire. Unemployment in the formal sector also meant that people would migrate into the informal sector, and that included organized crime.”
Thus, the virtually nonexistent economy in Corsica (save for tourism) remains a sticking point among nationalists.
While Corsica remains an extremely popular tourist destination (having protected more than a quarter of its coastline in nature conservancies, it possesses by far the most beautiful beaches in France and possibly in the entire Mediterranean), there is really not much else going on in the local economy.
“A little agriculture and a service sector simply do not provide the kind of opportunities for getting rich that other activities offer,” Yates said.
Corsicans, who are culturally, linguistically and geographically closer to Italy than France, also want to distinguish themselves from French mainlanders, although this may be a losing battle in a more unified Europe and an increasingly globalized world
“The Corsicans culturally are a mixture of French and Italian,” Yates explained.
“The Corsican language is a Romance language that is more related to Italian than French. Although most Corsicans have some understanding of it, the number of Corsican speakers has declined to less than 70 percent, and there are almost no Corsicans who speak only Corsican.”
Other forms of cultural nationalism are, however, not considered a threat. The days of the French Third Republic, with its repression of strong regional cultures, are over.
Still, Yates adds, this linguistic identity is a strong basis for Corsican nationalism, but given the current favor of the French regime for the promotion of regional languages, there is no need for Corsican nationalists to pursue armed struggle any more.
“Much of the terrorist activity that parades under Corsican nationalism is better explained by a fear and hatred of rich and powerful mainland French, who are perceived as outsiders, often tourists, but sometimes high-ranking officials,” he stated.
“When local islanders feel that these outsiders are taking their land, businesses, or women, then the situation often turns bloody and violent.”
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.