The Colonnas in Corsica are a bit like the Smiths in Britain. We are numerous. But in smart Parisian circles, the mention of this name sends a chill through the room. Yvan Colonna, a member of my extended clan (though not a known relative), was the most notorious Corsican nationalist of his time. He was convicted of the 1998 killing of a Préfét of Corsica, the highest republican official on the island. Last month, Yvan was himself murdered in a mainland French prison.
He was attacked by a fellow prisoner, an Islamist who had been arrested and brought over from Afghanistan. It was an especially gruesome affair. Colonna was beaten and then strangled for eight minutes. The ‘Shepherd of Cargèse’ – from the small seaside town north of Ajaccio, Corsica’s capital and the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte – spent two weeks in a coma before eventually dying. Corsica has been in a state of disorder ever since.
The images of the demonstrations, with police showered in Molotov cocktails just days before the first round of the French presidential election, have reinforced our fierce reputation, not that it ever needed much reinforcement. On the mainland, people with no connection to Corsica often paste the symbol of our island on their car number plates – a black Moor’s head wearing a white bandana – the not so subtle message: don’t mess with me. We Corsicans have a reputation for wry humour and a cheerful disregard for authority. On the island, people joke, ‘Calm is restored, the demonstrators have finished dispersing the forces of order’.
In the late 1990s, Prefect Claude Érignac was the symbol of the forces of republican order. He was brutally assassinated on his way to the theatre. It was a despicable crime that shocked all in France, including Corsicans. Our sense of honour in no way forbids killing, but it is unthinkable to do so in such a cowardly manner, shooting an unarmed man in the back. Unlike other European nationalist groups, the main Corsican independence movement, the FLNC, has never targeted civilians. Indeed, the assassination of Érignac was condemned at the time by demonstrations of more than 40,000 people, 15 per cent of the Corsican population.
So why has the island that had condemned the assassination become so moved by the murder of Yvan Colonna, its convicted perpetrator? It is partly that the official version of Érignac’s killing is not accepted by many here. Two major elements fuel this hypothesis. First, a pair of witnesses close to the scene saw the shooter and said that it was not Colonna. Second, the ballistics investigation indicated a shooter of 1.8 metres in height, which does not correspond to Colonna, who was 1.7 metres tall.
Guilty or not, he has in death become a martyr for many Corsicans. President Emmanuel Macron is widely blamed. Macron could have moved Colonna to a prison in Corsica as his wife had requested. The President had even promised to do so, saying on camera ‘that this particular case would be dealt with’. It wasn’t.
Many of the Corsican protests have ended in violence (Getty)
This succession of error and death drives a new wedge into the 200-year history of France and Corsica. The island of Pasquale Paoli, the 18th-century nationalist leader, author of the first constitution born of the Enlightenment, is now adrift.
To understand the tensions, it helps to understand the history. The story of France and Corsica begins with a forced marriage. The young Corsican state ejected Genoa, which then called on France to bring the islanders to heel. Until the French revolution, Corsica was under military rule. Paoli welcomed the overthrow of the Ancien Régime with enthusiasm and Corsican patriots joined the 1789 movement until the Terror made him break with France. He even briefly joined Britain during the French revolutionary wars, making the island a client state of London between 1794 and 1796. There is still a monument to Paoli in Westminster Abbey.
It was the glory of Napoleon that later led Corsicans to become French. Proud of their Emperor, Corsicans are the last descendants of the Romans. We are fascinated by law and military glory. As a result, the french fold was perfect for us during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Corsican elite became an integral part of the Parisian establishment, covering itself in glory on many a French battlefield. The island lost some 20 per cent of its men during the first world war and constituted nearly a fifth of the 2nd armoured division in 1944. Corsica also distinguished itself by refusing to give up its Jews during the occupation.
But the 1960s came and went and left Corsica culturally adrift. While France listened to The Beatles like everyone else, the Corsicans saved their polyphonic songs. A generational gap has opened. Today, most people under 40 are nationalists. Only those who have known past glory still dream of France. In the regional elections of 2021, 68 per cent of Corsicans voted for an autonomist or independentist list. The paradox is that these are the same people who gave Marine Le Pen 48 per cent against Macron’s 51 per cent in the 2017 presidential election.
To calm the spirits, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin has now promised a ‘status of autonomy will be specified’, but the meeting scheduled for this week has been postponed because of the violence. Could the chaos and disillusion in Corsica be the foretaste of the future of France more generally? France’s monarchy lived as long as it did as a symbol, at least, of a nation. Nationalism in Corsica suggests the Jacobin republic might not be so indivisible as imagined.
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