On 22 March 2022, an idealist died, the John Rambo of Ajaccio, the strenuous defender of the identity of an entire region, desperate and the victim, throughout history, of constant injustice. He died a murdered man, a fervent independentist and dreamer, a proud man who claimed the autonomy of the place where he was born and raised: the right of a people to save their origins, their language, culture and customs. Corsica, island of proud Phoenician pirates, now a land occupied by the French. In March, there were protests and riots in the cities of Corsica, resulting in clashes with the forces of order. On an island of 300,000 inhabitants, there were more than 20,000 Corsicans in the streets protesting against Paris, against those who had failed to protect the safety of Yvan Colonna, who was killed in prison by another inmate, but with an as yet unidentified instigator.
According to the prosecutor of Ajaccio, “gendarmes’ vehicles were damaged” and petrol bombs were thrown, but there were no injuries or arrests. The reality is quite different: the Corsican people rose up, hundreds ended up in hospital covered in blood, the tax office was set on fire with Molotov cocktails and stones thrown. The arrests were numerous and indiscriminate – just by being in the street at the wrong time. The clashes started in the home village of Colonna, a shepherd from Cargese, a small town of Genoese origin, known for hosting a Greek community exiled in Corsica, who arrived here centuries ago fleeing Turkish soldiers. From a shepherd he became an intellectual and then an independentist militant, hunted by the gendarmes, one of the most wanted men in France at the end of the 1990s, when he was accused of having been part of the commando that killed the prefect of southern Corsica Claude Érignac, symbol of the French oppressor, on the evening of 6 February 1998. A murder which Colonna has always denied and which, in court, has never been proved.
But Colonna ended up in jail because he is an icon of Corsican nationalism, who from his absconding wrote profound and moving letters to the newspaper U Ribombu (the name comes from a poem about the sound of pigeons in flight, a metaphor for rebellion, directed by Yves Stella, founder of the National Liberation Front of Corsica ), He then repeatedly argued once he had been imprisoned in Paris, in the Fleury-Mérogis maximum security prison, where his people could no longer reach him as they did while he was on the run, and where he spent four years hiding in a sheepfold, protected by the Corsicans, and impregnable to the police. In 2011, he was sentenced to life imprisonment, to be served in a special surveillance regime for prisoners at high risk of escape and violent behaviour. On the very day of his arrest, French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced with satisfaction the capture of the prefect’s murderer, when the sham trial that would later condemn him had not even taken place. For the enemy, the French torturer, Colonna is guilty regardless, he is a political prisoner.
Colonna actually abandoned militancy in 1989, after the birth of his son, Ghjuvan Battista, born of his love affair with the beautiful Pierrette Serreri. The boy owes his name to a friendship born in Nice with another Corsican student, Jean-Baptiste Aquaviva, who was killed in 1987, dying a martyr’s death, in a guerrilla operation by the FLNC, the Corsican National Liberation Front, which ended badly. An aggravating circumstance, according to the French courts, which therefore prevented Colonna from being seen by his family and transferred to the prison of Borgo, in Northern Corsica. All this in spite of the positive opinion of the prison police, who described him as a “reserved prisoner, always correct with the staff” who, if his name had not been Colonna, “would have gone almost unnoticed”.
The disturbing shadows behind the Érignac murder
Ajaccio, 6 February 1998: the scene of the assassination of Prefect Érignac
In Ajaccio, it is whispered that Érignac’s was a mafia murder, then disguised as a state murder – and the trial has not cleared up any of the doubts, since the prefect Érignac was famous for not sharing the line of negotiation with the French government, promoted by the then leaders of the blockade Canale Storico of the Naziunalist-FLNC, the independentists François Santoni and Jean-Michel Rossi, but was basically in favour of granting Corsica independence. Why kill him?
Claude Érignac was killed in the heart of Ajaccio. The prefect was on his way to a classical music concert at the Kallistè theatre with his wife. Two bare-faced killers approached him, as silent as shadows, and shot him in the head with three shots from a 9-calibre pistol, leaving behind a Beretta with its serial number clearly visible. A signature. The police discover that the pistol was stolen from a gendarme during a raid on the Pietrosella barracks by a mysterious nationalist commando on 5 September 1997, in which Yvan Colonna is said to have participated.
But how do the killers know that Érignac is at the concert that evening with his wife? Why risk the presence of so many witnesses when the prefect is a sportsman and rides his bike dozens of kilometres alone every morning? There are several claims, such as that of a fictitious Sampieru Group, threatening the representatives of the State in Corsica, whose founder is the militant nationalist Marcel Lorenzoni, a farmer, (the indebtedness of the farmers was one of the themes in which Lorenzoni was an opponent of the policy proposed by Érignac). Or that of a group called ‘Anonymous’, of which nothing is known.
The investigation is carried out jointly by the Judicial Police (SRPJ) of Ajaccio and the 6th Division of the Central Directorate of Judicial Police (which will become the National Anti-Terrorism Division, DNAT). After a year of investigations, the police picked up the so-called “agricultural trail”, which led to a group of nationalists who gravitated to the Cargese area: Alain Ferrandi, Pierre Alessandri, Didier Maranelli, Marcel d’Istria, Martin Ottaviani, together with the wives and girlfriends of the first three. The members of the commando were tracked down through the traces left by their mobile phones. Colonna’s name was mentioned by Ferrandi, who later recanted, saying that he had been beaten into confessing to the DNAT agents. The investigation, defined as ‘rubbish’ by the defence lawyers, will never lead to any results, despite more than two thousand arrests and 40 indictments.
At first, nobody talks about Colonna. There are eyewitnesses who describe the murderer as looking different. Ballistics experts say that the shooter is at least 1.80 m tall, while Colonna is 1.70 m tall. The verdict is therefore a farce. Thus began Yvan’s long fugitive period, now 40 years old, while his two alleged accomplices, Pierre Alessandri and Alain Ferrandi, were arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2003. But the farce continues, the aim is to annihilate the independence groups: on 28 November 1998 Jean Castela is arrested, on 30 May 1999 Vincent Andriuzzi – these are two names given by Alain Ferrandi. The two are presented as the ‘intellectuals of the group’, as they are both teachers. But on 23 February 2006, the Paris Court of Assizes acquitted Castela and Andriuzzi, who had previously been sentenced to 30 years in prison, as it was established that the DNAT team led by Roger Marion had falsified the minutes and had fallen into numerous contradictions during the hearings before the Court.
Life and death of a romantic rebel
Yvan was born in Ajaccio on 7 April 1960 into a well-known family, as he is the son of former socialist MP Jean-Hugues Colonna (born in Cargese and elected in the Alpes-Maritimes department). His mother, Cécile Riou, is a Breton from the province of Finistère. In 1975, the family moved to Nice: his father, a physical education teacher, was transferred. Yvan graduated from high school and soon after (1981), he gave up his university studies and returned to his native Corsica, where he started herding goats. He became involved in the independence movement and was suspected – without any proof – of having taken part in some attacks.
In the early eighties Yvan joined the Naziunalist Cuncolta, the military arm of the Corsican National Liberation Front and, in 1984, is said to have played an active role in one of the most spectacular actions in the history of Corsican nationalism: in three (Pierre Albertini, Noel Pantalacci and Pantaleon Alessandri) penetrate the Ajaccio prison disguised as gendarmes and, after having seized the garrison, interrogate and “execute” in their cells a Propriano crime boss, Jean-Marc Leccia, together with the former Sardinian kidnapper Tore Contini. There is no evidence to support Colonna’s involvement.
The execution is linked to a bloody event, the assassination of the independentist Guy Orsoni: it is said that the former secretary general of Haute Corse, Pierre Massimi, later assassinated, was an agent of the SDECE (the French secret service) and orchestrated the kidnapping-murder of Orsoni. Leccia and Contini would have been the executors of the crime. The FNLC claimed their murder and stated that Joseph Franceschi, under-secretary of Public Security, had handed over more than 100 million to pay the men who killed Orsoni. When, in 1990, the FNLC splits into three groups, Colonna distances himself from the independence movement, while maintaining his position as a radical nationalist, because he begins to fear that some military operations are the work of spies infiltrated by the French government .
Claude Érignac is an upright and courageous official. He has inspired a number of enquiries into dangerous political and criminal collusion, and has uncovered the unscrupulous use of funds from the Caisse régionale du Credit Agricole – for example, ten million francs that ended up in the pockets of a senior Corsican executive and a series of incomprehensible loans to a company, Fiat Geotech, which then invests the money in Italy. But Érignac has also uncovered dirty dealings in the disposal of old Gendarmerie barracks, especially those on the coast, which are attractive places for tourism. His investigation involves Pierre, the son of former neo-Gollist minister Charles Pasqua. Pierre Pasqua is linked to a Corsican businessman, Étienne Leandri, and to Jean-Charles Marchiani, a spy and corruptor, a friend of the family and the handyman of the French extreme right-wing parties.
Érignac is an inconvenient man who digs into certain centres of occult power in Corsica and France. This is why the ‘affaire Érignac’ is still an open wound. Last January, Corsican nationalist parliamentarians from all parties, including MP Bruno Questel, after a further investigation had shown Colonna’s extraneousness to the prefect’s murder, called for a more flexible prison regime for Colonna – in vain. But the fable of guilt no longer held water, and so it was feared that Colonna would be eliminated before he could prove his innocence in a new trial.
This was the case. According to the authorities, Colonna was attacked on 2 March by a Cameroonian prisoner, Franck Elong Abé, for having offended his Islamic faith – whether this version is true or false, the prison police of Arles stood by and did not intervene: Abé strangled and beat Colonna for eight minutes, before he managed to kill him, while both were watched on sight. Corsica revolts. After the attack and the first protests, the French Prime Minister Jean Castex revoked the hard prison status for Alain Ferrandi and Pierre Alessandri. In a spirit of peace (says Castex), the two Colonna comrades were transferred to Corsica on 11 April.
The desperate anger of an entire island
Pierre Alessandri and Alain Ferrandi
For the Independents, this decision is an outrage, given that, according to the law, both should have been on semi-freedom since 2017. An investigation report has surfaced, explaining how the agents observed the murder without reacting: there are two surveillance cameras in the gymnasium, the place of the attack, but the agents in charge say they saw nothing: at the same time as the fatal attack there was a maintenance operation that would have required the disconnection of all screens for a few minutes. All very strange coincidences.
Smaïn Ait Ali Belkacem, a member of the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA), sentenced to life imprisonment for the attack on the RER station of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris in 1995, is serving his sentence in Arles prison. Abé is one of his followers in prison. Arrested in 2012 in Afghanistan by the American authorities, Abé was handed over to France in 2014, where he is serving a nine-year sentence for terrorism, as well as four years for attempted escape and assault on a psychiatric patient. He was due to be released in 2023 after a prison career full of incidents. This was the last straw: the island was again desperately demanding independence from France, recognition of Corsican identity, the release of political prisoners and the officialisation of bilingualism.
Corsica’s history proves the independentists right. In ancient times Corsica was conquered by the Romans, the Vandals, the Byzantines, the Lombards and around the year 1000 by the Pisans, until, after the battle of Meloria, it became an integral part of the State of Genoa, which in 1824 put an end to the adventure of Pisa as a maritime republic. Already in the 16th century Corsican independence had its heroes and martyrs, such as Sampiero di Bastelica. In 1755 the Corsicans, led by the Enlightenment leader Pasquale Paoli, succeeded in freeing themselves, and the island’s new Constitution was signed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Genoa sold France the right to occupy the island militarily, and the dream vanished.
Rebellion broke out in the 1960s, after the end of the Algerian war. On 21 August 1975, the doctor Edmond Simeoni, father of the current president of the department, and about thirty men occupied a farm in Aleria and kidnapped the staff. After two days, the French Gendarmerie, with 1200 armed men and armoured vehicles, freed the farm. The following year, on 5 May 1976, the ‘Corsican National Liberation Front’ is born. In the night between the 4th and 5th of May, 22 home-made bombs explode in Corsica, the Côte d’Azur, Nice and Marseilles. On 13th January 1978 the Corsicans attack the NATO base of Solenzara (southern Corsica) with weapons and petrol bombs. The FLNC carries out numerous assaults, bomb attacks and armed robberies against banks, civilian and military public buildings, tourist facilities and everything related to France, and imposes a “revolutionary tax”, which is similar to the protection money imposed by the Sicilian mafia and is used to finance the war of independence.
The assassination of Claude Érignac is comparable to the kidnapping of Aldo Moro in Italy and that of Hanns-Martin Schleyer in Germany: in a period of strong social tensions, terrorist organisations, heavily infiltrated by the secret services, kill an important political personality (one who, moreover, is on the side of those who revolt) and use popular anger to violently eradicate protest. But while the Red Brigades in Italy and the RAF in Germany were defeated both politically and militarily, Corsican independence survived, and the arrest and then murder of Yvan Colonna became a political defeat for the occupying French government.
In 2000, the Matignon peace treaty, initiated by French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, transformed the demands for independence into demands for a special statute for the island’s administrative autonomy. The ‘Corsican National Front’ itself has turned into a mainstream political party fighting for a democratic referendum. Although the hard core of Corsican nationalists only agreed to lay down their arms on 19 December 2014, the movement has split, sometimes violently, between those who want politics and those who, instead, have chosen mafia-like paths, in a whirlwind of feuds in which the hand of the French secret services is recognisable. A few kilometres from the sea, Catalonia is also experiencing the same problem.
April 2022: Independence demonstration in Ajaccio
Corsica is one of the poorest and most disadvantaged regions in France, despite considerable support from the development of tourism. Its gross domestic product is the lowest among French regions (0.35% of France’s total). Since 2017 it has been led by the nationalist coalition of President Gilles Simeoni, one of Yvan Colonna’s four lawyers, who said that it had reached the culmination of a centuries-old struggle, given the large youth participation in the protests. Now Paris, whoever is president, will have to go down to Ajaccio and negotiate. For the first time in history, the Prime Minister, Jean Castex, has officially declared that he is open to dialogue for the granting of true autonomy. The fact that young people have taken over the leadership of the protest weighs even more heavily on the French state. The Minister of the Interior, Gérald Darmanin, promised a new dialogue.
Unfortunately, when it came to moving from promises to actions, things turned out differently than the Corsicans had hoped. There is nothing in the electoral programmes of Macron and Le Pen to suggest any advancement of autonomy – on the contrary, the right wing is fundamentally opposed to all the demands of the island’s people. The percentage of Corsican citizens who voted is very low, two out of five voters stayed at home, the nationalists abstained. The document summarising the police findings relating to the murder of Yvan Colonna, which had been promised to be made public, has instead been segregated – it seems that its contents could lead to a new outbreak of violence throughout Corsica. Since 7 April, once a week, thousands of citizens of Bastia and Ajaccio have been marching with Colonna’s picture and a banner reading ‘Statu francesu assassinu’ (the French State is a murder) . If something doesn’t happen soon, the anger will spill over again – the opportunity the French army is waiting for to solve the crisis in its own way: with guns.