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Corsican Nationalists Target Immigrants

Corsican nationalists who have bombed buildings in their war to win independence from France have turned their focus to the island's immigrant community.

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Not so peaceful for immigrants any more

The telephone rings at the office of Ava Basta, a group dedicated to fighting racism. The caller leaves a message: "Now it’s us who’ve had enough of you! We’re going to form an anti-Moroccan committee!"

Nearby, on the metal grill that protects the association’s windows at night, graffiti announces a bomb. And these days, spray-painted slogans such as "Francesi Fori" - "French Out" are becoming "Arabs Go Home."

Yvan Colonna Terrorismus Porträtfoto Terrorist Terroranschlag

Yvan Colonna, top suspect in the 1998 murder France's highest official on the French Mediterranean island of Corsica.

For almost 30 years, Corsican nationalists have bombed public buildings in an attempt to separate from France. But now nationalistic violence has turned against the immigrant community, mainly made up of Moroccans.

"We thought our place was here"

Corsica is home to about 30,000 immigrants -- one tenth of the population -- and these days, many of them said they feel threatened and have had enough.

"Every day we hear 'dirty Arab' or 'Arabs out'," said one Moroccan resident of Corsica. "We’ve got no pride left, no dignity as human beings and with a heavy heart, I want to leave. My three children were born here, but we can’t live here anymore."

Another foreign resident said it hurts to be treated this way.

"We thought we were well integrated," said a Moroccan woman. "We thought our place was here."

A community in trauma

The inhabitants of a peaceful, suburban neighbourhood of the northern city of Bastia repair the walls around their gardens. They were damaged when a huge blast destroyed the house next door. The owner of what is now just a charred ruin of twisted metal and rubble is a Moroccan tile worker. He had almost finished building the villa of his dreams. Meanwhile, estate agents in Bastia have been warned: Don’t sell to North Africans or face the consequences.

Korsika Abstimmung Headline in Tageszeitung

Corsicans reading the newspaper after a 2003 no vote to give more autonomy to their island.

Beneath one of the splendid Baroque churches of Bastia, most of the stall-holders and most of the customers at the market are North Africans. To the outsider, it seems to be a place where the cultures of the two sides of the Mediterranean can mingle under the shade of the plane trees.

But the reality is much darker: it is a community in trauma. The area is full of destruction: torched cars, a bombed out pizza parlor, bank and shops. This is part of 56 acts of violence against the island’s North African community over the past year -- as many as in the whole of the rest of France put together. Two underground nationalist groups called the Clandestini Corsi and the MCA that emerged this year have claimed responsibility for many of the attacks, which, they said, are aimed against the drug trade.

Drugs as a pretext

That is a claim authorities dismiss. The public prosecutor for northern Corsica, Jean-Jacques Fagni, called drugs a pretext.

"It isn’t true that only North Africans deal drugs," he said. "Some do... but so do French people whose origins are in Corsica or mainland France. This argument is just an attempt to justify acts which are essentially racist in character."

"For us, Corsican people is not an ethic term"

At a meeting in Corte, the first public event organized to protest against the new, racist violence, all the island's separatist leaders attended. The town itself holds special significance for nationalists because it was Corsica’s capital during its brief period of independence in the 18th century. They discussed a recent racist tract sent to a local television station that signed off with the words "The Land for the Corsicans," copied from an old nationalist slogan "Corsica for the Corsicans."

Jean-Guy Talamoni, Corsica’s most prominent separatist leader, said his definition of what it means to be Corsican is an inclusive one.

Korsika Abstimmung Frankreich

A Corsican stands next to a placard reading "No to the republican fall of Corsica" in 2003

"The nationalists have, for 30 years, defined the Corsican people as a distinct community made up of native and adopted Corsicans," he said. "We even passed a motion in the Corsican Territorial Assembly in 1988 affirming precisely that. For us 'Corsican people' is not an ethnic term." On the mountain road above Bastia there's a World War II monument commemorating the soldiers who lost their lives liberating Corsica from the Nazis. Nearly all of them were Moroccan. The inscription ends with the regret that they would never know how much they were loved by the people they liberated. For the North African community in Corsica today, such sentiments appear increasingly hollow.

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