‘Some bad people want to kill me, I’m not scared’

Corsica, the so-called "Island of Beauty" is mired in a wave of violence that has seen dozens killed in recent years. The island’s top politician Paul Giacobbi speaks to The Local about the danger posed to his own life and how to put an end to the bloodshed.

'Some bad people want to kill me, I'm not scared'

With five suspected gangland murders so far this year and 20 similar killings last year, it is easy to see why the Mediterranean Island of Corsica has been dubbed the ‘murder capital’ of Europe.

One of the men charged with the difficult task of governing the island and protecting the population of around 300,000 is Paul Giacobbi, head of the Corsica Executive Council and the island’s most prominent lawmaker.

Paul Giacobbi, 55, Photo:AFP

But now he too has become a target for the criminal gangs or "mafia" believed to be behind most of the 105 assassinations since 2007, including 20 last year alone.

Earlier this year, the French government took the step of placing Giacobbi, 55, under police protection, meaning whenever he sets foot on the island, two heavily-armed guards follow his every move.

“The government and police told me that some dangerous people said they could be interested in killing me,” Giacobbi told The Local.“I don’t want to know too much about it, but clearly someone credible, with the capability of doing that, has said something.”

The armed guards tasked with protecting Giacobbi are not just employed as a precaution. Corsica’s criminal gangs have demonstrated in the past they are not scared of targeting high profile figures.

In 1998, the island’s prefect at the time, Claude Erignac, was shot dead. Last year the region’s top lawyer Antoine Sollacaro, 63, and the head of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry for South Corsica Jacques Nacer, 59, were both gunned down in public.  

Giacobbi recently asked for the government to re-evaluate the dangers facing him, but a report came back that there was still a credible threat against his life.

The National Assembly deputy for Haute Corse insists, however, that he is not scared when he visits Corsica.

“I am not sensitive to fear, although maybe that's a handicap I have,” he said. “The guards are very professional but it makes it hard to go shopping in the supermarket with two people next to me,” said Giacobbi, who has decided to spend his summer holidays this year in India rather than in Corsica.

'I am not interested in money, you cannot corrupt me'

Nearly all of Corsica’s murders have been blamed on organised crime, with rival gangs engaged in turf wars to control everything from drug trafficking to gambling and prostitution.

A property boom in recent years has encouraged criminal gangs to bury their “dirty money” in property and land.

With hardened criminals becoming property speculators, local officials have come under intense pressure every time they are asked to grant planning permission for new homes or developments. With so much money at stake and officials living in fear, corruption is never far away.

Giacobbi believes corruption is one of the reasons why criminals want to target him specifically.

“I am not interested in money and I am not involved at all in corruption. It is impossible to corrupt me and they know that,” he said.

Giacobbi believes his decision to ask police to investigate every tender for public works programmes in Corsica – worth millions of euros each year – for any evidence of corruption, may have rubbed some dangerous people up the wrong way.

“These investigations could be damaging to a lot of bad people because it endangers a source of revenue for them,” he said.

"It's also possible that they want to kill me simply because I am the top politician in Corsica."

Over the years, Giacobbi has spoken out against those who are behind the violence in Corsica, which he says is “devastating” the island and setting a “terrible example” for the region’s young people.

He has frequently called on the French government in Paris to do more to help authorities on the island. His unwillingness to let the issue drop is another reason he believes some people might want him dead.

“I always say what I think when it comes to violence in Corsica. Violence is linked with corruption and the mafia, but I do not accept violence in a democracy," he said.

The government made a 'stupid mistake'

After the shocking death of the lawyer Sollacaro, who was gunned down at a petrol station in broad daylight, France’s Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault vowed to take the necessary steps to halt the spiral of violence.

As part of his ten-point plan, the PM announced that funds would be given to bolster specialist investigative resources on the island, which would be geared to fighting against money laundering, especially in the real estate sector.

Although Giacobbi welcomed the government’s efforts to solve the violence, he said the measures did not go far enough.

“We need to have one man or one woman in charge of fighting crime in Corsica,” Giacobbi said. “In Marseille they decided to appoint a Prefect of police but in Corsica they said it would not be useful. This is completely stupid. The number of murders per population is four times higher in Corsica than in Marseille.

“We need to concentrate the power in the hands of a reliable and trustworthy person. It’s very important to have someone with a strong personality, who will have a natural authority over both the police and the gendarmerie.”

“This person needs to be specialized and experienced in the fight against mafia.”

Giacobbi suggests that if the government in Paris does not take the right steps in helping out their colleagues in Corsica, there may come a point when he will walk away.

"Do they want me to continue in this mess? I am a simple man. I am not a politician. I could do something else with my life. I could be a teacher," he warned.

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‘Red lights’ as over-tourism threatens Corsican nature reserve

"It's nature's magical design," says a tourist guide, waxing poetic as he comments on the impressive red cliffs plunging into a turquoise sea at the Scandola nature reserve on France's Corsica island.

'Red lights' as over-tourism threatens Corsican nature reserve
A fisherman sails at sunrise off Ajaccio, Corsica. Photo: AFP

“Amazing!” exclaims Irena Snydrova, a Czech tourist visiting the UNESCO World Heritage site with her family, along with groups from Italy, Spain and France.

Their boat sidles up to the Steps of Paradise, rocks shaped into a stairway some 15 metres long, then glides on to Bad Luck Pass, a former pirates' redoubt.

The ages have sculpted the volcanic cliffs into myriad shapes that beguile the visitor, who might imagine a kissing couple here, a horse's head there, Napoleon's two-cornered hat further on…

The park, created in 1975, is an ecological dream, being a nature reserve and a protected marine zone that is listed by France's coastal protection agency and Natura 2000, in addition to its recognition by UNESCO.

It is a prime destination for the some three million people who visit Corsica each year, 75 percent of them in the summer.

The paradox is that growing numbers of tourists are drawn to Scandola's pristine waters and stunning geological vistas, endangering its fragile ecosystem.

The park, reached only by boat some 40 minutes from the tiny port of Porto,
stretches over 10 square kilometres of sea, and a somewhat smaller area of land.

“The reserve is a jewel for Corsica and the Mediterranean, but several red lights are flashing,” says marine biologist Charles-Francois Boudouresque, listing flora and fauna at risk, including ospreys, seagrass and fish species such as the brown meagre.

The tourist season coincides with the ospreys' mating season, notes Boudouresque, an emeritus professor at the Mediterranean Institute of Oceanography.

Because of over-tourism, ospreys' “reproductive success is zero or near zero, with either no chicks or just one chick” per year, he says.

Boudouresque, who also heads Scandola's scientific advisory council, says the osprey could become extinct in 50 years.

Since last month, at the urging of the scientific council, boats must keep a distance of at least 250 metres from ospreys' nests during the breeding season.

“It's a good start,” Boudouresque says.

As for the marine park's fish species, Boudouresque says he thinks the thrumming of the tourist boats is scaring them away.

But a crew member, who gave his name only as Diego, blamed groupers for the declining population of corb. “They eat everything,” he told AFP.

Tensions have arisen pitting tour boat operators and fishermen against the reserve's conservationist Jean-Marie Dominici.

Boudouresque says the seagrass “is not in the best shape,” blaming the anchors dropped by the many boats — some of them private vessels without authorised guides.

“It's bizarre for a nature reserve to see all these boats,” said Pierre Gilibert, a 65-year-old doctor, who is a regular visitor. “It might be wise to allow access only to professional boats.”

Many share the opinion that private boats are not sufficiently monitored or informed of ecological concerns.

“This morning we saw people climbing on the rocks and berthing their boats in narrow passageways, which is not allowed,” said Gabriel Pelcot, chief mechanic on a cruise ship of the Corsican company Nave Va.

Nave Va, as well as rival Via Mare, uses hybrid vessels: they are powered by diesel up to the edge of the marine park, then switch to electric for a quieter and less polluting presence.

Pelcot notes that this green option is 30 percent more expensive, but he expects it to catch on.

“We must find a compromise between the need for tourists to enjoy this natural treasure and that of not killing the goose that laid the golden egg,” Boudouresque says.

The marine biologist is optimistic that general awareness of the problems is growing.

He envisions ways to marry tourism with preservation. One example, he says, would be to focus cameras on ospreys' nests so that they can be observed without being disturbed.

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