AJACCIO, Corsica - He was born five years after it all started.
But Arthur Solinas tells the story of Yvan Colonna, a Corsican nationalist militant convicted of killing the Mediterranean island’s top state official, like he knew the man personally.
“I am from a generation that grew up with Colonna,” Solinas says. “For us, he is a symbol of resistance, a symbol of injustice - and above all, a symbol of Corsican patriotism.”
Solinas, a charismatic 19-year-old, is the president of Ghjuventù Paolina, one of the largest nationalist student groups at the University of Corsica.
“Yvan was a symbol – but now he’s a hero,” he says.
Colonna’s promotion from nationalist symbol to a Che Guevara-style leader happened in early March after he was murdered in a prison where he was serving a life sentence for the 1998 murder of the island's prefect Claude Erignac. Corsica has since been rocked by nationalist riots calling for justice for Colonna and greater autonomy – and even independence – for the island.
Hundreds of people, including dozens of police, have been injured, leaving French President Emmanuel Macron in a bind just days before the first round of the presidential election.
Macron, the current frontrunner, has been watching his lead against his far-right rival Marine Le Pen narrow in a matter of days, with the latest polls forecasting a 53-47 split between the vote in the second round run-off. In mainland France, the voter abstention rate could reach an all time high at around 40 percent.
In Corsica, an island of some 350,000 people, calls for abstention are even higher, with many saying mainland politics is just a distraction from what’s happening at home.
“Whether it’s Macron, Le Pen or anyone else, they’re all the same,” says Solinas.
Solinas’s mentor, Paul-Felix Benedetti, the head of the far-left nationalist party Core in Fronte, is calling on Corsicans to boycott the vote.
Annexed by France first in 1769, then again in 1796, many Corsicans continued to see France as a coloniser.
Nationalist sentiment is widespread in Corsica, which is geographically, culturally, and linguistically closer to Italy than to the French mainland.
The island already has some special controls, including its own legislative assembly and an executive council, but many argue a transition to full autonomy would give the “Island of Beauty” more control over education, economic policy and healthcare.
Even the Corsican language does not have official status, despite the fact it's taught in schools, as Paris insists that French is the only official language of the state.
For youth like Solinas, whose first language was Corsican, this is a denial of his culture.
“We grew up with Corsican patriotism, not French patriotism,” he says.
Colonna's death has not only pushed more nationalist groups onto the streets, it put young protesters – most under 25 – at the forefront of a movement that could end in Corsica making serious gains in autonomy for the first time in decades.
And these young activists are eager to put themselves on the front lines.
“We were raised with a call to protest,” says a 24-year-old waitress working at a waterfront cafe in Ajaccio, the island's capital.
The waitress, who VICE World News is not naming for security reasons, was struggling to decide whether she was going to throw a grenade or set a bin on fire.
“Maybe I’ll go with a grenade,” she mused.
She argued that violence was justified. “It’s necessary – we’ve been making demands for years and weren’t heard. Now we see the state is listening.”
In Ajaccio and the university town of Corte, the streets are filled with Colonna graffiti. It’s hard to walk a block without passing stencils of his face spray painted in front of local shops and university buildings.
Then there are the messages directed at Paris: “Statu Francese assasinu” or “French state assassins.”
“You can say they've been inspired by many of the Black Bloc tactics,” says Thierry Dominici, a researcher at the University of Bordeaux who studies the relationship between nationalism and the radicalisation of Corsican youth.
Like Black Bloc members, a global political movement that rose out of Germany in the late 1970s, many of the Corsican protesters wear all-black disguises to conceal their identities.
Grenades, stones, and Molotov cocktails have been used by demonstrators, who hide them across the city just hours ahead of scheduled protests before launching them in confrontations with police.
In mid-March, police found 350-400 Molotov cocktails hidden in a car park.
A local police union condemned the violence, asking for reinforcements, saying that they had witnessed "scenes of urban guerrilla warfare never seen in Corsica.”
While around a dozen young protestors admitted to VICE World News that they were violent, one source put it bluntly, “Would we really tell you if we were the ones throwing the grenades?”
Many have cast the youth protestors off as a group hooligans just looking to make trouble. As one taxi driver, disgusted by the protests, put it, “they don’t know why they’re protesting. They just see an opportunity to skip school and throw shit at the police.”
But that assessment isn’t quite fair, says Dominici.
Around 1 in 4 Corsican youth have struggled to find employment, with most being forced to take seasonal jobs at a minimum wage.
“They have real concerns about widespread youth unemployment, and about the environment,” he says. “They feel neglected.”
Corsica has a bloody past. From the late 1960s up until the 1990s, the island was plagued by nationalist extremism. The establishment of the National Liberation Front of Corsica (FLNC) in 1976 gave way to more than 10,000 terrorist operations and some 40 assassinations, including Erignac’s murder.
The FLNC officially disarmed in 2014, giving hope that the era of bombings, assassinations, and other forms of extreme violence was over.
When nationalist parties took a majority in the regional parliament in 2017, many believed it was a sign that Paris would finally take notice. But they were met with tumbleweed.
“It was a real denial of democracy,” says Jean-Guy Talamoni, a nationalist who was president of the Corsican Assembly from 2015 to 2021. That denial, he says, brought in a new wave of frustration amongst nationalist supporters that began bubbling long before Colonna’s attack.
Talamoni, 61, was barely a teenager when he joined the FLNC in the 1970s. “Corsican nationalists were definitely a minority then… when there was a nationalist protest at my high school in Bastia, it was only a handful of us.”
That’s why Talamoni says he shares an extra sense of pride with what he’s seeing on the streets today. “Now when there’s a strike at my old high school, everyone strikes, the whole school is blocked, and that’s thanks to the work of the FLNC… you can see the cultural battle has been won.”
“Corsica is a people and a nation… these facts must determine new relations between Corsica and Paris.”
Two weeks after the protests flared up, Macron sent the French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin to Corsica for a two-day emergency visit in which he said Paris was ready to dangle the prospect of autonomy for the first time in modern French history if calm was restored on the island.
“We are ready to go as far as autonomy – there you go, the word has been said,” Darmanin told the newspaper Corse Matin.
Macron’s rivals, however, were quick to attack the president. They accused him of sending a clear message that tactical violence worked.
“Going from the killing of a prefect to promising autonomy, could there be a more catastrophic message?” said the far-right leader Marine Le Pen, Macron’s most serious contender in the upcoming election. “I refuse to let the cynical cronyism of Emmanuel Macron destroy the territorial integrity of France: Corsica must remain French.”
At Corsica’s regional assembly last week, a minute's silence was held ahead of a planned session to honour Colonna, who was 61 when died from his injuries three weeks after being attacked by a jihadist inmate.
Colonna has long been a divisive figure. For French mainlanders, his 2003 arrest brought a sense of justice. But for Corsicans, he became a martyr for the nationalist cause.
“He was a great militant for Corsica,” says Antonio Calisti, a 16-year-old high school student who says he learned about Colonna from his parents and teachers. “He supposedly killed the prefect Erignac, but the state has no proof.”
Indeed, questions about Colonna’s culpability have long plagued the case.
In February 1998, Erignac was on his way to a classical music concert when he was shot by an unknown gunman.
Colonna became the prime suspect in 1999 after French police rounded up a group of suspects. After hours of interrogations, several of them named Colonna as the gunman, only to later retract their statements, saying they were made under duress.
Still, Colonna became the state’s “public enemy number one.” In 2003, he was captured at a farmhouse in rural Corsica where he was working as a shepherd. He was sentenced to life in 2007 and spent most of his sentence in Arles on the French mainland, despite calls for him to serve his sentence in Corsica.
Nevertheless, Corsican youth grew up hearing his story.
“You have this reversal of power where now it’s young people who are telling the politicians how to react,” says Thierry Dominici. “The older generation sees that the hope of young people is perhaps more profitable – and some say more effective.”
Asked if he felt like the latest wave of protests was paving the way to a new, more positive relationship between Corsica and the mainland, Jean-Guy Talamoni shook his head.
“Reconciliation will come only with justice,” he says. “We’re still waiting for it.”