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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French bakers protest over surging power prices

Dressed in aprons and brandishing baguettes, hundreds of bakers demonstrated in the streets of Paris on Monday to warn that the country's beloved bread and croissant makers were under threat from surging electricity and raw material costs.

French bakers protest over surging power prices

“We feel like there’s a huge injustice,” said Sylvie Leduc from the rural Dordogne region who had travelled to the capital for the protest. “We know how to run a business, that’s not a problem, but we’re faced with increases that are just impossible to pass on to customers.”

The protest was yet another sign of the anger and incomprehension felt by many French people over the sudden price hikes linked to the war in Ukraine, as well as the Covid-19 pandemic that hit global supply chains.

Bakers were already struggling with higher butter and flour costs, while the price of eggs has also spiked because of a national bird flu outbreak that has hit many French farms.

The final straw for many of the country’s 35,000 bakeries has been the annual renewal of their electricity contracts, with suppliers suddenly asking for astronomical monthly payments in 2023.

READ MORE: Boulangeries across France face closure as energy bills skyrocket

Leduc’s husband Jean-Philippe said their power bill had increased six-fold in January, meaning they could hang on for only a few more months before being forced to close — unless financial help arrived. 

“Thirty years of being a baker and it’s going to finish like this? I could never have imagined it,” he said, shaking his head. “We don’t want hand-outs, we just want to be able to live from our work.” 

For the French, their local bakery is about more than simple food shopping: they serve as a symbol of the national way of life, while providing a focal point for many communities.

“The day starts with a baguette!” former presidential candidate Jean Lassalle, an ardent defender of traditional rural French communities, told AFP at the rally.

“These people are the ones who get up the earliest in France and they’ve had enough.”

‘Bakeries in Danger’

Given the emotional attachment to French bread, the government of President Emmanuel Macron has sought to highlight the help on offer for small business owners.

Macron welcomed bakers to the presidential palace on January 6, telling them: “I’m on your side”.

He outlined various government schemes which could help bring down electricity bills by 40 percent for eligible businesses.

But many of those demonstrating said the different systems put in place were either too complicated, too slow to deliver help, or  available for only the smallest bakeries with less than 12 employees, for example.

Some carried banners reading “Bakeries in Danger”, while one man pushed a wooden coffin on wheels with a skeleton inside dressed in a baker’s apron and trousers.

Many said they had always accepted the long hours, lack of sleep and gruelling physical labour out of the love for the profession, but felt compelled to hit the streets now.

“I’ve never seen bakers protest before,” said Joelle Reimel, 56, who said her monthly power bill for her bakery 50 kilometres (30 miles) southwest of Paris had increased from €2,500 a month to €14,000.

“We don’t have time to demonstrate normally. We’re up at 2am and go to bed at 8 in the evening.”

Pension protests

The protest came after one of the biggest demonstrations in decades last Thursday when more than a million people protested against an unpopular pension reform that will raise the age of retirement to 64 for most people.

Macron’s opponents have sought to pin the blame for electricity rises on him and European Union rules which mean power prices across the bloc are linked to the price of gas, even if the electricity is generated from other sources.

Anti-immigration and eurosceptic leader Marine Le Pen has assailed the “refusal of Emmanuel Macron to break from the absurd European rules on the electricity market.”

Macron has acknowledged that European electricity pricing rules are “flawed” and has promised to reform them.

For Lionel Bonnamy, the fate of France’s bakeries is also about the country’s economic model, which has long sought to protect small shopkeepers and artisans — what he called the “economic fabric” of the country.

“If we carry on this way, everything will look the same, uniform, big business,” said the award-winning baker from Paris.