A look at the roots of recent unrest in Corsica

Pascal Pochard-Casabianca, AFP | French police stand guard in Ajaccio, on December 28, 2015

After days of violent anti-Arab protests, tensions remain high on the French Mediterranean island of Corsica. FRANCE 24 spoke to former UN mediation expert John Packer and asked him about the simmering tensions on the French territory.


French authorities on Sunday banned demonstrations in part of the Corsican capital Ajaccio following two days of anti-Arab protests and sectarian tensions.

The recent unrest was sparked by a Christmas Eve clash in which two firefighters and a police officer were attacked. Regional official François Lalanne said a fire had been "deliberately lit" in the low-income neighbourhood in a ruse aimed at "ambushing" the emergency services, which was promptly blamed on the Arab community. Xenophobic protests followed in the capital, with angry crowds shouting, "This is our home!" and "Arabs get out!". A Muslim prayer hall was also vandalised.

The unrest comes amid the recent regional elections in mid-December which saw Corsica's nationalist party winning power for the first time and France's anti-immigration National Front make major gains.

To understand the simmering tensions in Corsica, FRANCE 24 spoke to John Packer, a former member of the UN’s standby team of mediation experts and current associate professor of law at the University of Ottawa in Canada. Packer explained that the island’s history and the Corsicans’ frustrations at being ruled from Paris are at the heart of the problem.

Some argue the anti-Arab protests are linked to France's National Front. Do you think this is true?

It's not quite clear what the real source of the protests was. We know that the immediate flashpoint was the attack on the firefighters, but it is overly simplistic to blame the far right for this.

There is a tendency almost everywhere these days to seek a reaction on immigrants, and this is particularly the case in a place like Corsica, with its small population where migration will have a big impact. In particular in the neighbourhood where these events took place -- a deprived neighbourhood that has a high concentration of immigrants.

Another important distinction to make is between the terms used by the media: anti-Muslim and anti-Arab. We must not confuse racism with people who are simply unhappy with immigration policy and local integration.

The Corsican nationalist movement seems as popular as ever. How do you account for this?

First of all, it's important to make a distinction between nationalists and the separatists or the independentists. This is part of Corsica's history. For a long time, we have seen a push back against the uniformity of the French Republican model, and the fight for autonomy has been a main plank of the nationalist movement.

In the light of a lot of trends in the world and across Europe, it's not surprising that we have seen some resurgence of this. A number of Corsicans are actually not committed separatists but are more protesting the limitations on autonomy imposed by Paris.

People want more assuredness in terms of governance, particularly at a local level over things that affect them.

Corsica's nationalist party won power for the first time in regional elections in mid-December. Do you believe the win fuelled the protests?

I'm not sure. We have to take the broader context into account with regard to government policies and an overall stagnating economy. There seems to be an ongoing inability by many European governments, particularly along the Mediterranean, to deal with unemployment and the lack of prospects for young people. So there are a number of things which converged here.

A majority of Corsicans are in favour of an independence referendum. What would the economic reality of an independent Corsica be?

The question we have to ask is: What does "independence" really mean nowadays? Normally, a separate state would, among other things, have control over its monetary policy and decide whether to print money or determine its official currency.

But if Corsica was to become 'independent' and at the same time retain the euro, then that's not real independence. Its monetary policy would still be controlled by Frankfurt or by Europe. This is also true for a number of other movements today, including in Catalonia and elsewhere.

If Corsica wants to stay within the European Economic Community, which it would essentially have to, the real issue in terms of independence or autonomy would be the level of self-governance it would have over areas related to development.

Corsica is blessed with some other natural resources, like the climate which attracts tourism, but it doesn't have natural commodity wealth, manufacturing or trade development.

However, if the taxation policy was changed, all sorts of different economic development might be possible. That's where local governance really matters a lot. If the locals have a say, they might decide on a different developmental approach [than the government in Paris] which might improve the economy.

Also, we should not forget that there are a lot of nationalist political movements in the world that would actually be prepared to sacrifice a certain level of economic development in favour of being masters in their own home.

This has a lot to do with language or other cultural policies. For a very long time, Corsicans have simply wanted to assert their right to be in control of - from their perspective - their own country, their own language and their own culture.

When it comes to Corsica I think it's more a question of a degree, or ratio, in what the trade-off would be.

But I don't think many Corsicans would want to compromise their economic situation too much in favour of autonomy or independence.

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