“We have a big problem in this country and Corsica is a sad illustration of this,” said Laurent Marchangeli, mayor of the Corsican capital Ajaccio, speaking after a mob shouting racist slogans on Friday attacked a Muslim prayer room in the town and tried to burn copies of the Koran. “A strong hate, fanned by radicalized minds and also by politicians, threatens our unity. It lays claim to a land that is exclusively Christian, and condemns what is supposedly a rampant Islamisation of French society.”
The sequence of events began on Thursday night after what deputy-prefect François Lalanne said was a deliberate ambush of firefighters called out to extinguish a fire lit for the purpose at a site on the Jardins de l'Empereur estate, a housing-estate neighbourhood with a large population of North African origin. The official said two firefighters were injured when the windows of their truck were smashed by “hooded” youths. When police reinforcements were called out, one officer was also hurt in the ensuing violence. Lalanne said baseball bats, golf clubs and a bottle containing acid were seized, although no arrests were made. Citing “people close to the firefighters”, local daily Corse-Matin reported that some of the youths shouted “Dirty shitty Corsicans, get out of here, you are not at home here.”
The following day, December 25th, about 600 people gathered for a demonstration in front of the prefecture in support of the injured firefighters and police officer. A group, reportedly between 250- and 300-strong, then broke away from the protest to attack the housing estate. A local councillor, Paul Leonetti, said he was leaving a meeting he had attended nearby when “I found myself facing a crowd who were clearly spoiling for a fight”.
Media reports said members of the vigilante mob were heard shouting in Corsican dialect “Arabi fora” - meaning “Arabs get out” – as well as, in French, “we’re at home here” and “We’re going to kill you”.
After trying to enter buildings on the estate to seek out the youths involved in the initial events on Thursday evening, some of the mob then went on to ransack a nearby Muslim prayer room and set fire to copies of the Koran. The terrace of kebab restaurant was also damaged.
Jean-Guy Talamoni, a leading member of the Corsican independence movement Corsica Libera, who was elected in regional elections earlier this month as president of the Corsican assembly, denounced the December 25th attack as “indescribable acts in a land which has instituted religious tolerance since the 18th century”. Meanwhile, Gilles Simeoni, member of the parallel independence movement, Inseme per a Corsica, who this month became head of the Corsican Executive Council, the highest local government body, condemned the vigilante mob for “racist acts” that were “completely contrary to the Corsica that we want”.
The sprawling housing estate, the Jardins de l'Empereur, has a population of about 3,000 and stands on the higher ground overlooking Ajaccio, a town of 65,000 inhabitants situated on the west coast of the French Mediterranean island. It is plagued by a higher-than-average unemployment rate, and a history of drugs trafficking, prompting comparisons with hundreds of low-income neighbourhoods of housing projects across mainland France, mostly situated in urban suburbs. Dubbed les banlieues - literally, “the suburbs” – these neighbourhoods have become synonymous in France with the economic and social exclusion of a disenfranchised youth of immigrant origins, lawlessness and high tensions.
But Christophe Mirmand, the prefect of Corsica (the senior civil servant who is the highest representative of the national administration), insisted that the Jardins de l'Empereur quarter in Ajaccio has little in common with the ghetto-like banlieues on the mainland. “There are a few acts of incivility, but never anything very serious,” he said. “This is not [like] the [highly sensitive] quarters of North Marseilles, one mustn’t caricaturise.”
The principal objective of the mob involved in Friday’s revenge attack appeared to be to seek out the youths who were involved in the violence against the firefighters and police on Thursday night. “They thought they knew the addresses of the aggressors,” said prefect Christophe Mirmand. “I called up a certain number of [police officers] to avoid direct confrontations. The police stopped certain people from penetrating buildings, but there were insults shouted up from under the windows of apartments.”
It was after the situation on the estate was brought under control, and tensions subsided, that some of the mob headed off towards a nearby prayer room.
“It is a discreet prayer room, without any particular signs,” said Mirmand, which appeared to indicate that the group of an estimated 100 people knew exactly what they were looking for. A closed metal shutter outside was forced open and the prayer room was ransacked while copies of the Koran and prayer books were thrown into the street before an attempt was made to burn them.
“The events happened quite rapidly,” said Mirmand. “There was not, at that moment, a police presence in the area because the priority was given to the Jardins de l’Empereur,” continued the prefect, adding that there were fewer police available because of the holiday period. “And then, we are in Corsica. Here we don’t have the manpower of the prefecture in Paris.” The disturbances ended at about 9p.m.
While racist acts, and notably those targeting Muslims, are on the increase across France, the context in Corsica is a very particular one. Earlier this month, following nationwide regional elections across France, the independence parties Femu a Corsica and Corsica Libera formed an alliance to lead Corsica’ assembly – roughly equivalent to a regional council. In the runnup to the elections, Corsica Libera, explained its policies on immigration, under the phrase, in Corsican, “Populu è immigrazione : qui simu in Corsica” meaning “People and immigration: Here we are in Corsica”. Writing in the island’s newly-launched monthly magazine In Corsica, the Corsican author and translator Marcu Biancarelli says the phrase “echoes the old slogan of French Algeria – ‘Here, it is France’, picked up in the 1980s by the [anti-independence] CFR party and then these last few years by the [far-right] Front National with the recurrence we know of”.
Corsica Libera party leader Jean-Guy Talamoni, the new president of the island’s Assembly, identifies economic immigration as a problem that the island, with an average unemployment rate of 11% across its two départements (counties), cannot support much longer. He dismisses any common ground with the French far-right Front National party, but some of his policy statements share common ground with it and are picked up by extremist groups (including Vigilance nationale corse, Sangue Corsu, Cristiani Corsi) in order to justify racist and xenophobic acts under cover of nationalism. Some from the far-right, such as Estelle Massoni, founder of the Corsican branch of the Front National’s youth movement before this year joining Femu a Corsica, are attracted to the independence movement’s ranks.