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Mafia image of Corsica 'totally divorced from reality'
If France is going to deal with its Corsican problem, it must stop thinking of the island as run by a 19th century mafia and concentrate on the “pure and simple” criminality undermining life on the island, local experts say.
The French state must radically re-think its attitude towards Corsica – currently France's murder capital – if it ever hopes to defeat its deeply entrenched criminality, say both the island's leading historian and a prominent human rights activist.
Fifteen people have been murdered this year in Corsica, a picturesque Mediterranean island with just 300,000 inhabitants, in assassinations the police say bear all the hallmarks of gangland “settling of accounts”. Not one of these killings has been solved.
The latest victim, well-known defence lawyer Antoine Sollacaro, was gunned down in broad daylight on Tuesday in the island's capital, Ajaccio, as he pulled up to a petrol station in his Porsche convertible.
'It's not Asterix in Corsica'
The killings have inevitably drawn descriptions of Corsica as a mafia haven, where an endless cycle of vendettas and omerta (a code of silence) prevents the government, police and judiciary from taming an entrenched lawlessness that is terrorising ordinary Corsicans.
But it is this precise attitude that has hamstrung attempts to deal with the situation in any meaningful way, says Antoine-Marie Graziani, a history professor at the University of Corsica.
“The situation here is not 'Asterix in Corsica',” he told FRANCE 24, referring to a classic French comic strip that merrily exploits every conceivable Corsican stereotype and cliché.
“But that's the impression you'd get from much of what you see in the media. And it's also the impression you get from the knee-jerk reactions from the French state whenever anything serious happens.”
Graziani says it is important to make the distinction between mafia-style rule – “a 19th century construction that is totally divorced from the present reality” – and the presence of criminal gangs, rich from decades of audacious robberies and the ongoing traffic in drugs, who are using their home island as a base to launder their money.
Encroachment on neighbouring clans' territory inevitably leads to friction between rival gangs, often ending in bloody “settling-of-accounts” murders that the police seem utterly unable to solve.
“These gangs, like the Brise de mer [infamous for robbing UBS Bank in Geneva in 1990], aren't mafia: they're criminals, pure and simple,” he insisted.
Show me the money
According to Graziani, the key to solving the riddle of record-breaking murder rates on the island – which, remarkably, has some of the lowest rates of petty crime in France – is to track down the vast amounts of dirty cash laundered by the gangs, often through building projects and real-estate speculation.
“This money is the gangrene of Corsican society,” said the Ajaccio-based historian. “But there is absolutely no continuity in the state's approach to the problem."
“When there is a high-profile killing, Paris talks about making Corsica a special security zone, of increasing the number of police on the streets. None of these pointless measures ever see the light of day. They only serve to illustrate a complete failure to understand the reality.”
The French state's failure to deal with Corsica's runaway murder rate boils down to “utter incompetence”, André Paccou, head of the Corsican branch of France’s Human Rights League (LDH), told FRANCE 24.
Paris, he said, has a tendency to view the whole of Corsican society as “generally dangerous and incapable of adhering to the rule of law or the principles of democracy”, thereby failing to take into account the low levels of petty crime and the efforts of an active regional legislature.
Paccou said police use anti-terror legislation to keep suspects in custody for questioning much longer than is usual on mainland France (four days as opposed to two), among other wide-ranging and “exceptional” powers that have “proved to be useless.”
Meanwhile, French teams investigating organised crime are based on the mainland – Corsica falls under the Marseille jurisdiction – that are often “completely out of touch with the realities of Corsican life,” he said.
Like Graziani, Paccou insisted that the key to ending the gangs' “reign of impunity” in the face of an apparently impotent police force was to track down their money.
He said some local initiatives, such as the Bastia Financial Section, an investigating team of Corsican magistrates, had shown some promise – but a lack of resources meant cases were being delayed to such an extent that they had to be dropped because the statute of limitations had expired.
'A lack of means'
On Friday, Bastia magistrate Francis Battut told RCFM Radio: “Most of these killings in Corsica are linked to financial dealings and money laundering. But our investigations are not getting very far because of a lack of means."
“Paris has to give the judiciary here in Corsica greater resources so that we can see these investigations through. And this means Paris showing a bit of political will.”
The murder last Tuesday of Antoine Sollacaro may have been the tipping point for the government.
“The situation in Corsica is intolerable,” Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said on Wednesday as he announced that Justice Minister Christiane Taubira and Interior Minister Manuel Valls would present a “global strategy to fight Corsica's rampant criminality” at an inter-ministerial meeting scheduled for Monday.
“The government is determined to act firmly and with determination against this organised crime that has been undermining Corsican society for many years,” the prime minister added. “Every aspect of this criminality must be tackled, and in particular the economic and financial dimension.”