The Corsican coastline
If you've never been to Corsica, you really should. The island, which lies just off the Italian coast, is one of the most beautiful places in the world; it's covered in snowy mountains, picturesque little towns and luxurious golden beaches. In certain months, you can ski in the morning and sunbathe in the afternoon; it really is paradise (if combining sunburn and heavy nylon jackets is your idea of paradise). However, perhaps its strongest sell is that it is, officially, the murder capital of Europe.
Last year, I went to Corsica to explore the island's historical predilection for violence. A week before I touched down in Napoleon Bonaparte airport, two prominent Corsicans – a lawyer named Antoine Sollacaro and Jacques Nasser, head of the chamber of commerce – had been shot dead. I was there to try to figure out who did it (and to make a film about trying to figure out who did it). Murder isn’t shocking in Corsica; there have been more than 110 murders since 2008, the majority of them Mafia-style hits. "At the beginning of the week, we think, 'It's strange – we haven’t had a killing yet,'" Gilles Millet, a local journalist, told me. "This society is soaked in death. You call someone to do something and they say, 'I can’t. I have a funeral to go to.' Death is part of life here."
I asked Gilles who he thought was responsible for the deaths of Sollacaro and Nasser. "Normally everyone knows who’s done the killings, but with Sollacaro and Nasser, we don’t know," he answered. "Despite everybody usually knowing who did it, there have only been four prosecutions since 2008 – out of more than 110 murders. There’s a culture of silence here. Nobody talks – partly out of fear, partly because it’s just not the done thing."
The Corsican Mafia are a powerful force on the island, and vendettas between clans or families are common. Some families have been feuding for decades in tit-for-tat killings – and there's no ruling out the possibility that either Sollacaro or Nasser somehow got caught up in that. However, there's also another suspect in their deaths: the nationalists.
The island has changed hands a number of times over the centuries, being ruled by the Genoese, the French, the British and by the Corsicans themselves. Now, the French are in charge, and there aren't many people who are particularly happy about that. In the 1970s, the Fronte di Liberazione Naziunale Corsu (FLNC) was formed, and eagerly set about demonstrating their discontent by launching a bombing campaign on mainland France.
In 1998, the group killed the highest ranking French government official on the island, Claude Erignac. Since then, due to infighting and successful operations by French security forces, the FLNC have scaled back their operations. Now, they restrict themselves to occasionally blowing up holiday homes owned by wealthy foreigners. They say their sporadic explosive campaign is to protect the environment and to stop their island from becoming nothing more than a tourist destination.
Paul François Scarbonchi, former mayor of Cuttoli, Corsica
"Whenever there are problems that can’t be solved by existing means, like democracy, people – like people everywhere – have the right to become violent," explained Paul François Scarbonchi, then-mayor of the picturesque mountain village of Cuttoli.
"So you don’t condemn the violence?" I asked.
"Non." He shook his head. "When people are trapped, they have no other way to be heard."
I struggled to think of another place in the world where the elected mayor of a town wouldn't at least try to condemn domestic bombing campaigns, but I came up empty.
It was dark when we left the mayor’s office, which looked more like a hunting lodge than an administrative centre. Out in the street, an old man was hanging out of his window having a smoke. He invited us in, where he rattled some glasses and a bottle of whiskey onto an old wooden kitchen table. A rack of hunting rifles had been tastefully employed as décor on the walls. I asked him what he thought of all the holiday homes being blown up.
"Ah, we’re doing a good job there," he answered.
"What? You’re blowing them up?"
"No, not me," he said. "I mean we – Corsicans." In all my time on the island I didn’t find anyone who opposed the bombings.
The next day, we drove south, through winding mountain roads and untouched forests and along stunning coast lines. We had a meeting with Vincente Cucchi, one of Corsica’s most prominent environmentalists, next to a secluded church on the southern tip of the island. Surely, surrounded by such a serene landscape, she – an environmentalist – would offer an alternative to violence.
"You have to admit that the nationalist movement have played their role in protecting the seaside and the coast," she said. "Developers were scared to build because they were scared their buildings would be blown up."
"So you don’t condemn the violence?" I ventured.
"No, we don’t have to condemn it. Violence is part of life. It’s part of Corsican life. It’s part of us. We have to recognise that violence has had a positive effect on the environment."
The vast majority of Corsicans agree with Vincente. They don’t want their rugged island to be spoilt by super hotels or holiday homes that only affluent foreigners can afford. They don’t want developers to buy up land and knock down trees. They want their island to stay as it is, as they’ve always known it.
"You can wander around without bumping into anyone," Vincente explained. "You can climb the mountains, you can have a swim. It’s real freedom here. We want it to stay as natural as possible, and we want to access the nature without paying for it."
I suppose it's easier to understand the bombing of empty properties than it is the assassinations of public figures. I found myself wondering, 'If it weren't for the violence, would this place have already turned into the next Ibiza or Zante – a picturesque island destroyed by marauding Brits abroad?'
A bombed holiday home
But there is a darker side. I was told a story about a Corsican-Algerian rapper who posted a video of one of his songs on YouTube. He included an Algerian flag in the video. The next week, his car was blown up. Muslim prayer rooms have also been firebombed, simply for being Muslim prayer rooms. Though, once again, it's hard finding anyone who will condemn such acts.
In a café in the main town of Ajaccio, we had arranged to meet a Corsican police officer. He was dressed in jeans and a sleek black leather jacket. "An Arab bar is blown up. I’m not justifying it, but these bars can be very noisy, and ‘special’ things can happen there," he said, keeping coy about his definition of "special". He continued: "When the state doesn’t give us enough resources, Corsican people tend to take things into their own hands."
To be honest, despite his little caveat, it sounded exactly like he was justifying the attack. He certainly didn't condemn it. This cop was obviously a Corsican first and a police officer second. The whole island was increasingly beginning to resemble the pagan Scottish isle where The Wicker Man was filmed, or the kind of secretive elite community that JG Ballard wrote about in Super-Cannes and Cocaine Nights. Virtually everyone, including the authorities, seemed to be in on it. Hardly anyone would condemn the killings or the bombings, and some openly supported the violence.
I never found out who killed Sollacaro and Nasser. In truth, it's highly likely that their killers will never be found. But I did fall in love with Corsica – apart from the racism, of course. There’s a special kind of pride here. Despite their reluctance to become overrun by tourists, they're welcoming to outsiders. It’s a place where old men will welcome you into their homes and drink with you and ask you about where you’re from and what your home is like. Just don’t disrespect them or their culture, or you could walk back to your car to find it up in flames.
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