Bombs and arson attacks spark fears of return of terror campaign in Corsica

Bombs at public buildings and holiday villas going up in flames: a spike in attacks on Corsica has led to worries that nationalist violence could return to the tourist destination known as France's "island of beauty".

Bombs and arson attacks spark fears of return of terror campaign in Corsica
The picturesque island of Corsica has been rocked by attacks in recent days. Photo: AFP

The Mediterranean territory, famed for its beaches and as the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte, was once a hotbed of anti-French militancy which led to thousands of bombings from  the 1970s to early 2000s.

But since 2014, when local National Liberation Front of Corsica announced a ceasefire, French state infrastructure and the luxury holiday homes owned by wealthy mainlanders – still seen as “colonisers” by some locals – have been largely safe.

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Gilles Simeoni, head of the Corsican regional government, has warned of a tense atmosphere on the island. Photo: AFP

After a series of incidents in recent weeks, Gilles Simeoni, the nationalist head of Corsican regional government, warned of a “tense atmosphere” on the island and “the resurgence of the logic of conflict”.

“It's our common duty, in Corsica and in Paris, to stop this dreadful spiral and to open a real dialogue,” he said on Monday, three days before French President Emmanuel Macron visits.

Improvised explosive devices were found earlier on Monday outside two tax offices in the town of Bastia, leading to evacuations and bomb disposal teams being scrambled in scenes that recalled past attacks on symbols of the French state. 

At the weekend, a holiday home in Sagone, a village above a picturesque bay of turquoise water on the west of the island, was attacked, while another partly-built villa went up in flames in Venzolasca on the eastern coast.

In early March, on the day Macron's visit was announced, six homes were bombed, causing no injuries but lots of structural damage.

For the moment, no group has claimed the violence and experts warn about drawing conclusions.

“We're in the dark,” academic Thierry Dominici at the University of Bordeaux in western France told AFP. 

“Either it's violence led by different people and it's a new form of protest. Or it's the action of isolated individuals who want a return of the (nationalist) violence,” he said. 

Fears of a new cycle of political unrest are linked to a tense standoff between Macron and the island's nationalist leader Simeoni and his more radical coalition partner in the Corsican assembly, Jean-Guy Talamoni.

Their parties – Femu a Corsica (Let's Make Corsica) and pro-independence Corsica Libera (Free Corsica) – won 45.36 per cent in regional elections in December 2017 and came to power promising greater autonomy. 

They have formulated a series of demands, including an amnesty for prisoners jailed for separatist violence, expanded use of the Corsican language and measures to keep wealthy mainlanders out of the local property market.

But they have run into resistance from Macron, who has offered greater institutional autonomy and support for the local dialect, but is unwilling to give too much ground out of fear of encouraging other separatists in France.

In an interview on Tuesday, Macron said he and Simeoni shared a responsibility to “do everything to ensure that the page of violence has been turned for good”.

“I think that you can defend the Corsican identity and fully respect the nation and its values,” he added.

But Simeoni will snub a public meeting with Macron on Thursday which has been organised as part of the French leader's “Great National Debate,” a months-long exercise to discuss the demands of the “yellow vest” protest movement.

Talamoni too is set to stay away and the ruling coalition has called for a half-day strike — called “dead island” — to coincide with Macron's arrival on Thursday.

Dominici says that despite the standoff and violence there is evidence that the nationalists are making progress as a non-violent political force having given up the armed fight. 

While highly political demands such as the freeing of prisoners have gone nowhere, Macron has offered to add an article on Corsica to the constitution which would recognise its “specificity” and allow the regional assembly to adapt some national legislation.

“On their (nationalists') institutional demands, there has been some progress,” he said.

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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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