Prison attack on a Corsican reopens old wounds on a troubled French island

An attack on the prison last week, which left prominent Corsican nationalist Ivan Colonna in a coma, sparked days of angry protests and sparked resentment against the French state on an island with a history of separatist violence.

Yvan Colonna, once France’s most wanted man, remained in a coma Friday in a hospital in Marseille after being brutally attacked on March 2 by a fellow detainee serving a sentence for terrorist crimes. The attack sparked outrage in Corsica, where some still see Colonna as a symbol of the island’s resistance against the French state.

The 61-year-old is serving a life sentence in 1998 for the assassination of Corsican governor Clauderinac, the island’s top French state official. He was captured after nearly five years of stalking that transported French investigators around the world – only to find him living as a shepherd in the Corsican jungle long as a hideout for patriots and bandits.

Angry protests have swept the Mediterranean island since news broke that Colonna had been hospitalized for the first time a week ago, with a number of media outlets reporting his death by mistake. Several protests turned into clashes with security forces, raising fears of a resurgence of the violence and bloodshed that marred the “Island of Camel” (Island of Camel) from the 1970s until the turn of the century.

A ‘martyr’ for the national cause Those decades of violence came to a climax with the assassination of Ireneac near a concert hall in Ajaccio, the regional capital, in February 1998. This horrific murder was the first time a French ruler had been killed since the office was established before Two centuries ago at the hands of the ruler. The most famous Corsican, Napoleon Bonaparte.

“The assassination of the representative of the state in Corsica is a very barbaric and dangerous act, unprecedented in our history,” said Jacques Chirac, the French president at the time.

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Later, Helen Constanti, an investigative journalist and author of the graphic novel, “Une Histoire du nationalisme corse” (A history of Corsican nationalism), said going back, Ireneac’s murder “was a nod to the violent and clandestine nationalist movement in Corsica”.

She explained in an interview with France 24: “The armed separatist movement was in decline by the late 1990s, devastated by infighting. The fringe group that carried out the assassination of Ireneac thought they would rekindle the flame – but the opposite happened.”

The governor’s killing sparked widespread outrage and a fierce crackdown followed. Colonna’s associates were quickly caught and quickly poured the beans, naming the shepherd from Carges, a small coastal town north of Ajaccio, as the gunman. However, not being caught would make Colonna a hero to many of her fellow islanders, who covered the walls of Corsican towns and cities with the slogan “Gloria AT, Ivan” (Glory to you, Ivan).

“He became a symbol of the resistance of the French state as he escaped capture for 1,503 days,” Constante said. “To this day, he maintains the aura of a martyr for the national cause among a segment of the Corsican population.”

Alarmingly for officials in Paris, the slogans saluting Colonna reappeared in the wake of his prison attack – along with other hits of the last century, such as “I’m Frances Fora” (Come out with the French).

In the largest protest yet, thousands of protesters marched on Sunday through the old town of Corte, the former mountain capital of Corsica, under the chant of “State Francis Assassino” (French state fatal). Some clashed with police and targeted French symbols, setting fire to the tricolor national flag and a car with a number plate from mainland France.

Two days earlier, a ferry carrying French gendarmes was blocked for hours at sea as port workers in Ajaccio vowed to “prevent the forces of oppression from landing on the island.”

Demonstrators throw rocks and flares at French gendarmes in Ajaccio, Corsica’s main city, on March 9, 2022. © Pascal Bouchard-Casabianca AFP’s government buildings were the target of ongoing unrest Wednesday night, with protesters storming the main justice building in Ajaccio and Set fire to leaf clippings. Then the demonstrators went to loot a bank located in a square named after Irinak.

On Thursday, local authorities said 14 people were injured in Ajaccio alone, including a journalist for French TV channel TF1 who was shot in the leg. Officials said 23 riot police and three civilians were injured in Bastia, the island’s second largest city. There was more unrest in Calvi, where dozens of protesters threw petrol bombs at government buildings and smashed windows with stones.

At the heart of the anger expressed by the protesters, the French state has long refused to move Colonna and her accomplices in the Ireneac murders from Arles in south Frontou to a prison in Corsica, closer to their families, and French officials say the severity of the crime means they are also classified as detainees from ” special situation”, and that the only prison in Corsica is not equipped to provide adequate monitoring.

Colonna’s lawyers ridiculed the claim, noting that their client’s private monitoring did not prevent another detainee from pulling a bag over his head and attempting to strangle him in the gym of their maximum security prison.

“This would not have happened in Borgo (the only prison home in Corsica) because he had no contact with this kind of person,” his lawyer, Patrice Spinetold, told French media after anti-terror prosecutors. An Islamist terrorist told interrogators that he was angry at the “infidel comments of Corsicans.”

In an effort to ease tensions on the Mediterranean island, Prime Minister Jan Castix announced on Tuesday that the special status of Colonna would be lifted. But the move failed to pacify the protesters, whom the belated announcement further humiliated.

“Many Corsicans viewed the government’s timing as a provocation,” Constante said. People in France may be surprised by the scale of the unrest. But this sense of injustice – that Corsica people are denied their right to be close to their families – is widespread on the island.”

Speaking to Public Sénat, Corsican senator Paulu Santu Parigi accused authorities of ignoring warnings about the safety of Colonna and two others convicted of the murder – which Castex raised its special status on Friday.

“We’re not here to discuss Colonna’s conviction. He’s serving his sentence. But how can a privately watched detainee end up face-to-face with a gym fanatic and have that kind of thing happen?” he asked. “We’ve been calling for years [Érignac’s assassins] To be transferred to Corsica. We knew they were in danger.”

Frustrated democratic aspirations as the first Corsican nationalist to sit in the French Senate, Santo Pargues, a representative of the nationalist camp who has recently succeeded in engaging in the democratic process – and away from armed struggle. Now is the time, he says, for the French state to keep its share of the bargain.

“Corsica has chosen the democratic path for some time,” he told Public Sénat, adding that “the nationalist camp has proven that it wants to turn the page on Corsica’s violent past.” However, he also noted that “the state has not lived up to expectations.”

Aside from the return of Corsican prisoners, nationalists have long insisted on two other main demands: autonomy for the island and recognition of Corsican as an official language. But such demands remain a taboo for many in France, a highly centralized country with one official language, and politicians who promote the need to protect the country’s national identity.

“After decades of violent struggle, the Corsican nationalists are playing by democratic rules and are now the dominant force in the region,” Constante said, referring to the nationalists’ recent victories in regional elections. They want more autonomy for the island, but the French authorities do not like this idea.

President Emmanuel Macron has said he is open to adding a specific reference to Corsica in the French constitution, while rejecting more substantive demands for autonomy made by the island’s nationalist leaders.

Constante warned of a possible backlash if Corsicans felt their democratic aspirations were being thwarted. She cited the youthful revival of old anti-French slogans in recent protests as a worrying sign.

She noted that “many young people are disappointed, saying, ‘We chose the nationalists but nothing changes,’” and continued, “the extremists may be a small minority – but they can blow on the already burning coals.”

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