Frustrated political expectations, social anger feed Corsican unrest

The Bastia demonstration , 13 March 2022.
The Bastia demonstration , 13 March 2022. Author: Core in Fronte
Corsica has been undergoing a historic wave of protests over the last two weeks following the attempted murder of political prisoner Yvan Colonna in a prison in Arles. To find out more about the context that has led to this situation, we have spoken to André Fazi, professor of Political Science at the University of Corsica.

The protests

Calm demonstrations of the first few days gave way to clashes between demonstrators and the police starting in the night of 9-10 March, culminating on Sunday 13 with new incidents after a demonstration in Bastia in support of Colonna, which left around a hundred injured. 7,000 to 12,000 people, according to sources, attended the march.

In addition to these general protests, students are staging their own. A strike has been called for 17 March. Since last week there have been demonstrations and blockades in the lycées (upper secondary schools), which will continue as long as there are no solutions, protesters say.

Meanwhile, Yvan Colonna has been in a coma since the day of the attack. Admitted to a hospital in Marseille, his condition remains very serious. The French government has since lifted Colonna’s and two other Corsican prisoners Alain Ferrandi’s and Pierre Alessandri’s status of specially supervised prisoners (DPS, in French). The move opens the door to a possible transfer of the three men to a prison in Corsica.

Colonna is a Corsican nationalist activist that got a life sentence in 2007 for the murder of prefect Claude Érignac. Colonna has always claimed his innocence. Corsican nationalists believes there were political motivations behind his trial. Alain Ferrandi and Pierre Alessandri were convicted in 2003 for the same crime.

Political context

All the Corsican pro-autonomy and pro-independence parties, together with associations and trade unions, announced on 10 March that they were forming a “collective” and took up the call for the demonstration in Bastia, with three main demands: “justice and truth for Yvan [Colonna],” “freedom for the patriots,” and “recognition of the Corsican people.”

French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin plans to visit Corsica this week to open a “round of talks” with the island’s “elected representatives and stakeholders,” but demands an end to the clashes. Meanwhile, the president of the Corsican government, pro-autonomy Gilles Simeoni, argues that “it is urgent that a real political solution be found with Corsica.” French Prime Minister Jean Castex speaks of an “evolution of the status” of Corsica. But it should be remembered that French President Emmanuel Macron has in recent years ruled out all three main changes demanded by Corsican nationalists: legislative autonomy, the creation of a resident status, and the co-official status of the Corsican language.

Regions of France unveiled in February its White paper on the regions, in which it calls for “a status of reinforced autonomy within the republic” for Corsica, which would see the island receive “regulatory powers of a legislative or quasi-legislative nature.” Regions of France is the association that brings together the regional authorities of the French Republic.


André Fazi: “Many Corsicans feel a deep sense of injustice and indignation”

Nationalia has interviewed this week André Fazi, professor of Political Science at the University of Corsica, this week, to have a deeper insight into the reasons behind this situation.

Nationalia: Apart from the obvious trigger of Colonna’s attempted assassination, which are the underlying factors that help explain the current outburst in the streets, in such a magnitude?

André Fazi: Yvan Colonna’a agression has triggered a tremendous amount of emotion, sense of injustice, and anger. However, the magnitude of the mobilisations must be understood in the light of six years of expectations, disappointments, and frustrations. Since the nationalists came to power in December 2015, the state has never seriously considered their demands. Worse, it has often been contemptuous, as when the nationalist elected representatives were body-searched before they could attend President Macron’s speech in February 2018.

However, there are also internal disappointments and frustrations. President Simeoni, as head of the Corsican executive, has always been criticised for being too conciliatory towards the state, and these criticisms have been strongly increased since the 2021 election, when Simeoni ended the experience of the three-party coalition in power since 2015. It seems difficult to imagine, but some actors would not like to see Simeoni directly involved in any political negotiations with the state.

N: Who are the ones protesting? Are they mainly people linked to grassroots movements, people who act on their own... Or do they have some kind of connection to the nationalist or pro-independence parties? Has this outburst surprised those parties?

A. F.: It is an intergenerational mobilisation that is not at all limited to nationalism. Last week, the communist CGT union, usually hostile to nationalism, called for a rally in front of the prefecture. Many Corsicans felt a strong sense of injustice and indignation. Since the date of Yvan Colonna’s aggression, perhaps 20,000 Corsicans have taken part in various actions, which is huge and has not happened since the 1980s. Among the most visible participants, those who provoked incidents, some are highly politicised, others are not... and that is not astonishing. The nationalist parties were probably surprised by the magnitude of the mobilisation, but all are accompanying and participating in it. The internal competition is real, but for the moment, nationalism remains united, within a coalition that also includes an ecologist movement, the university, trade unions and associations, etc. In my opinion, the outcomes will depend mainly on their ability to stay united and generate consensus.

N: According to a Le Monde article last December,Gilles Simeoni was trying to get a “full agreement” with the French government on issues and demands relating to Corsica after negotiations had already begun in October. After that, Le Canard Enchainé said that there was even an agreement between both sides on autonomy for Corsica. Do these two stories reflect some reality? Do such negotiations really exist?

A. F.: Gilles Simeoni has never spared his efforts on the issue, but no serious negotiation could begin six months before the presidential and legislative elections, except perhaps for the situation of the prisoners, which we have seen has a very important impact. The situation of the prisoners was partly blocked by the administration, whereas the collective demands concern the constitutional level and are much more difficult to achieve. Despite this, it was possible to imagine that there was an agreement in principle to resume institutional discussions after the elections. In 2018 and 2019, the government’s draft constitutional revision already provided a special constitutional status for Corsica. The substance was considered very disappointing, but this constitutional barrier was already destined to be lifted.

N: Do you think that the issue of Corsican autonomy can be on the table in the debate for the upcoming French election? Is there any option that Macron or some other candidate (besides Yannick Jadot, who has publicly supported a “full right, full exercise autonomy”) commits himself or herself to far-reaching powers for Corsica?

A. F.: It is difficult to imagine that the case of Corsica will become central to the campaign - the French are thinking above all about the war in Ukraine, their purchasing power, the covid, etc. - but it was already not totally absent. The ecologist candidate Yannick Jadot proposes to satisfy nationalist demands, the association of French regions also defends the idea of a legislative autonomy status, etc. In the current context of mobilisation, it cannot be ruled out that a candidate, including Emmanuel Macron, will make a commitment to satisfy this demand of autonomy, which does not pose a serious problem from the point of view of public opinion. However, the indispensable constitutional revision will be difficult to achieve, since the Senate has a veto power on revisions. If Emmanuel Macron is re-elected President, he will have to negotiate this with the Senate conservative majority, and this will certainly be a hard task. In short, there is still a long way to go.