Riots in Corsica over jailed nationalist leave dozens injured

Sunday protests saw 67 people injured on the French island of Corsica, in a display of public anger over the assault of a nationalist prisoner by a fellow inmate.

Rioters in Corsica clash with police over the treatment of nationalist prisoner.
Rioters in Corsica clash with police after a nationalist prisoner was assaulted in prison. (Photo by Pascal POCHARD-CASABIANCA / AFP)

The French government called for calm on Monday after fierce clashes left dozens of demonstrators and police injured on the island of Corsica, where anger over the assault in prison of a nationalist figure has reached boiling point.

Police reported 67 people injured during protests on Sunday, including 44 police, following scenes that onlookers described as akin to urban guerilla war.

Yvan Colonna, who is serving a life sentence for the assassination in 1998 of Corsica’s top regional official, Claude Erignac, has been in a coma since being beaten on March 2 in jail by a fellow detainee, a convicted jihadist.

The incident has stoked anger on the island, where some still see Colonna — who was arrested only in 2003 after a five-year manhunt that eventually found him living as a shepherd in the Corsican mountains — as a hero in a fight for independence.

Demonstrations and riots have been ongoing since the prison attack, which protesters blame on the French government.

“French government murderers”, read placards at Sunday’s demonstrations, which brought an estimated between 7,000 and 10,000 people into the streets.

Colonna was jailed in the south of France. The authorities have long rejected his demand to be transferred to Corsica, saying his offence made him a special status detainee.

In a bid to ease tensions, Prime Minister Jean Castex last week removed this status. He also said he would allow the transfer of two other convicted members of the hit team that killed Erignac to Corsica but the move failed to placate their supporters.

Up to 300 masked young demonstrators used Molotov cocktails and rocks against police, who in turn deployed teargas and water cannon in the clashes that broke out in the afternoon and lasted late into the evening.

Prosecutor Arnaud Viornery told AFP that police had told the local population to remain indoors in the town of Bastia, where protesters set the tax office on fire with firebombs.

Anger and indignation

Corsica, one of the Mediterranean’s largest islands, has been French since the 18th Century.

It is known as the “Island of Beauty” because of its unspoiled coastlines, spectacular beaches and mild climate, which have made it popular with tourists, who are the island’s main source of income.

But there have also been constant tensions between independence-seeking nationalists and the central government, involving assassinations of officials sent by Paris, as well as frequent murders between the island’s rival political factions.

“There is an expression of anger and indignation,” Gilles Simeoni, Colonna’s former lawyer and a pro-independence politician, said on Sunday.

“The entire Corsican people has been mobilised to protest against injustice and in favour of truth and a real political solution,” he said.

One demonstrator at Sunday’s protest, Antoine Negretti, said, “Any violence will be the fault of the French government.”

Seven years of negotiations had yielded no result, the 29-year-old said.

“But things have changed thanks to seven days of violence. Violence is necessary,” he said.

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said on Monday he will travel to Corsica on Wednesday for a two-day visit, seeking to “open a cycle of discussions” with all political forces on the island.

He condemned the recent violence and called “for an immediate return to calm”.

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IN PICTURES: Clashes as thousands protest French agro-industry water ‘grab’

Thousands of demonstrators defied an official ban to march on Saturday against the deployment of new water storage infrastructure for agricultural irrigation in western France, some clashing with police.

IN PICTURES: Clashes as thousands protest French agro-industry water 'grab'

Clashes between paramilitary gendarmes and demonstrators erupted with Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin reporting that 61 officers had been hurt, 22 seriously.

“Bassines Non Merci”, which organised the protest, said around 30 demonstrators had been injured. Of them, 10 had to seek medical treatment and three were hospitalised.

Protesters march from a gathering site during the demonstration against the giant water retention basin project on October 30, 2022. (Photo by Pascal Lachenaud / AFP)

The pressure group brings together environmental associations, trade unions and anti-capitalist groups against what it claims is a “water grab” by the “agro-industry” in western France.

Local officials said six people were arrested during the protest and that 4,000 people had turned up for the banned demonstration. Organisers put the turnout at 7,000.

The deployment of giant water “basins” is underway in the village of Sainte-Soline, in the Deux-Sevres department, to irrigate crops, which opponents claim distorts access to water amid drought conditions.

Around 1,500 police were deployed, according to the prefect of the Deux-Sevres department Emmanuelle Dubee.

Protesters dismantle an outdoor water pipe during the demo. (Photo by Pascal Lachenaud / AFP)
Dubee said on Friday she had wanted to limit possible “acts of violence”, referring to the clashes between demonstrators and security forces that marred a previous rally in March.

The Sainte-Soline water reserve is the second of 16 such installations, part of a project developed by a group of 400 farmers organised in a water cooperative to significantly reduce mains water usage in summer.

Protesters hold a banner reading “Agro-industry cooperatives are attempting to help themselves to water” during the protest. (Photo by Pascal Lachenaud / AFP) 

The open-air craters, covered with a plastic tarpaulin, are filled by pumping water from surface groundwater in winter and can store up to 650,000 square metres of water.

This water is used for irrigation in summer, when rainfall is scarcer.

Opponents claim the “megabasins” are wrongly reserved for large export-oriented grain farms and deprive the community of access to the essential resource.