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Corsican patriot Yvan Colonna died on Monday 21st March 2022 in France as a result of injuries sustained in a murder attempt by Muslim fundamentalist jihadist prisoner Franck Elong Abé, who attacked him on 2nd March while Colonna was exercising in the prison gymnasium. The attack put the Corsican into a coma from which he never recovered. News of the assault led to demonstrations, marches and riots in French-ruled Corsica, in addition to promises of concessions from the French Government, both with regard to the relocation of prisoners and the national status of the island’s governance.
Colona’s death joins the list of the deaths of many freedom fighters in jail, from Irish to Basque to Turkish and Kurdish backgrounds. On 30 Mar 2013 Basque freedom-fighter Javier Lopez Pena died in custody while other Basque political prisoners have died in Spanish jails down through the years. In defiance of widely-recognised human rights norms, both states disperse their political prisoners throughout their territories, locating them far from home and from family and friends.
News of the attack provoked an instantaneous and militant response. The four nationalist political parties (Femu A Corsica, Partitu di a Nazione Corsa, Corsica Libera and Core in Fronte) denounced the attack, and two of them (the pro-independence Corsica Libera and Core in Fronte) supported the slogan of the demonstrations: “Statu francese assassinu” (“French state, murderer”).
A mass demonstration on March 6th saw thousands of participants in Corti, mainly young students, strongly denouncing the attitude of the French government. On March 9th youths set fire to part of the Palace of Justice in Ajaccio. And on March 13th, the streets of Bastia saw the largest demonstration in recent years, called by political parties, trade unions, the University, students and other social agencies. There were serious disturbances in front of the Prefecture.
More demonstrations have taken place since including school and college strikes and when news of Colonna’s death reached the island a Corsica police spokesman confirmed that “a full security alert” was in operation, and that riot police were on standby in all major towns and cities.
CORSICAN HISTORY AND CURRENT CONDITIONS
Corsica is a nation currently under French rule but which has been occupied by many different invaders over the years – including Greeks, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Goths, Byzantine Empire and later was fought over by the Holy Roman Empire and the Saracens. The city states of Pisa and Genoa ruled Corsica for five centuries; it came under French rule in 1768 and again when annexed by the French state in 1796 in which possession it remains to this day. Among its world-famous people was Bonaparte Napoleon, who became Emperor of France.
In 1976 two groups of Corsican revolutionary nationalists joined in armed resistance and formed the FLNC (Corsican Nationalist Liberation Front) which engaged in bombing French police stations and also attacks on foreign second homes in Corsica. In 2016 the organisation declared its intention to scale down armed resistance in the context of jihadist attacks, including the Charlie Hebdo killings. Last year, however, the organisation released a video of a scene witnessed by journalists, showing a group of armed masked men with the organisation’s banner, in which one read out a statement. The content declared unhappiness with the pace of change from the authorities, criticised nationalist politicians for sitting on the electoral gains (see below), pointed out that the balance of French population against theirs militated against a pacifist campaign and also criticised French owners of second home on the island “who think they are at home on Corsican soil,” saying “our country is not yet yours – your country will never be ours”.1
The population of the 8.680 km2 island-nation is 316.250 inhabitants (2014 census) of which 40% are reported as speakers of the national language, Corsu but all speak French – the only official language. Unemployment is around 8% (but higher among youth) as are accommodation prices, driven higher by the large number of holiday homes owned by people from other countries.
For much of its French history, the island has elected MPs of the French constitutional Right or Left but this changed during the 2017 French national elections, when a coalition of Corsican nationalist parties easily took three of the four available seats.
Preceding this success, the coalition had been formed for the 2015 Corsican regional elections, following an agreement to form a coalition called Pè a Corsica made up by of two main nationalist parties, the pro-autonomy Femu a Corsica and the pro-independence Corsica Libera. The coalition took 45% of the seats as well as the Presidency of the Corsican Assembly. The coalition’s priorities include the status of the island residents, officialdom of Corsican language, amnesty for FLNC prisoners, and a native legislating power, to mention but a few.
As of 2021 the nationalist coalition has 73% of the seats in the Corsican Assembly.
YVAN COLONNA’S PERSONAL & POLITICAL HISTORY
Yvan Colonna war born He was born in Marseille, France, on 7th April 1960 but at 15 years of age his family moved to Nice, (which is on the usual route betwee France and Corsica). After completing his French high school education, Yvan studied to become a teacher of physical education and sports but broke off his studies in 1981 to go and live in Corsica. He moved to accommodation in Cargèse and his brother later opened a beach bar there. Colonna took up goat herding in the area, a common occupation in Corsica and became integrated in the nationalist ethos of the majority of the Corsican population and in consequence was no doubt under French authority surveillance.
On 6 February 1998 at 9:05 pm, the prefect of Corsica, Claude Érignac, i.e the representative of the French State in Corsica, was shot receiving three 9mm bullets in the neck, and died shortly thereafter.
French state roundups of Corsican nationalist activists followed but Colonna fled. The hunt for Colona became the biggest manhunt in French history and eventually Colonna was detected hiding in the Corsica mountains where he was arrested on 4 June 2003. Colona was in custody without bail but not tried until November 2007, his trial taking a month. Colona repeatedly stated his innocence during his internment awaiting trial, saying that he was the victim of unfair press coverage convicting him before trial. On 13 December 2007, Colonna was pronounced guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. His later appeal was rejected in June 2011.
At the time of his murderous assault Yvan Colonna was serving his sentence in the Arles jail, a 331 km direct journey by ship from Corsica (which is actually nearer to Italy than to France), between nearly 10 and 12.30 hours depending on the route, over land and sea. Any visits by family and friends in those circumstances necessitate considerable expense, including overnight stays to return the folowing day. Basque political prisoner support assocations have commented on the strain and streess upon the family and friends of the prisoners by this deliberate dispersal, with long motorway journeys resulting in serious and even fatal accidents. Corsicans also point out that had Colonna been serving his time in a Corsican jail, he would not have been in the same jail as the jihadist who murdered him.
The murder while in French custody and rise in Corsican nationalist militancy, in particular among the youth, will make problems for French rule on the island. Already the authorities have conceded that prisoners from Corsica will serve their sentences in jails on the island and some kind of autonomy is being talked about. Independence is however out of the question from the point of view of the French State and as a result the Corsican nationalist coalition will also come under pressure, from the militant resistance movement as well as from the French authorities.
SOURCES & FURTHER READING
French-language news video (includes footage of demonstrations and riots): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=70emcpsV7U8
Reaction in Corsica to the murderous assault on Yvan Colonna: https://www.naziogintza.eus/en/nazio-bidelagunak/corsica-burns-again/
FLNC Video Statement in 2021: https://www.rfi.fr/en/france/20210903-corsica-seperatist-group-flnc-hardens-tone-threatens-to-take-up-arms-again
Corsican nationalist election sucesses: https://www.naziogintza.eus/en/nazio-bidelagunak/national-succes-in-corsica/