Society

France : A new army of ghosts haunts Corsica

1 November 2012
Le Monde Paris

Antoine Sollacaro’s funeral in Propriano, October 19 2012.

Antoine Sollacaro’s funeral in Propriano, October 19 2012.

Never mind Sicily or Naples, the most crime-ridden European region is what the French call "the Isle of Beauty" — Corsica. There, nationalists and racketeers, who are sometimes one and the same, are regularly felled by bullets. A journalist from French daily Le Monde took a “murder tour” of the sites of these crimes that everyone knows about but which are cloaked in a shroud of silence.

There are no candles or flowers to serve as a vigil for their last moments. In the places where they fell, you can find none of those improvised altars seen on every roadside, plastic sentinels which year in, year out, honour the memory of car accident victims. There are few or no commemorative plaques either such as the one for the WW2 resistance fights on Ajaccio’s Cours Napoleon.

Despite the epitaphs carved on their marble gravestones, which state that, although they were killing one another, they fell “per la nazione”, there are no traces of memorials for the activists of the FLNC, Corsica’s National Liberation Front. For the last six years, since the murder of Corsican parliament member Robert Feliciaggi, new ghosts are coming to haunt Ajaccio at an alarming rate. And the island's administrative capital is rapidly becoming like a corpse-strewn battlefield.

The streets of Napoleon's imperial city are the site of a recent crime wave with as victims, the members of a handful of rival factions that rule the city now that it is freed of the supervision of [nationalist] elders and underworld godfathers. This is a new criminal landscape, layered over two previous murderous shooting sprees.

Shot like a rabbit

There was one in 1995, when, during the "civil war" between nationalist groups, a death in one camp was avenged by a death in another within twenty-four hours. There is also an older – even bloodier – episode which shook up the town some forty years ago, the Combinatie War, named after a cargo ship full of cigarettes that floundered in the Gulf of Ajaccio. The battle for the cargo's booty structured the underworld in Corsica and in Marseilles [home to many Corsican émigrés] for decades.

This spiral of murders, which are due neither to chance nor to ideals, began in the parking lot of Ajaccio airport. In 2006, Robert Feliciaggi was killed with two bullets to the back of the head as he loaded his luggage into the boot of his BMW. He was a businessman, jolly and rotund, who wore a blazer and smoked a cigar. He was not quite  a thug nor a nationalist and was not a godfather either, unlike some of his friends. And it’s there, near the Avis car rental centre, where visitors hurry to pick up their rentals, that this strange trip, this mortuary game of Snakes and Ladders, begins before stopping, at least for the time being, at a gas station on the Sanguinaires Road, where the lawyer, Antoine Sollacaro, was killed on October 16.

From the airport parking lot in which "Robert", as all of Ajaccio called Feliciaggi, fell and going towards the old town, the four-lane highway turns right towards Mezzavia, the shopping mall. Here, within a few dozen metres there were no less than four deaths. In front of the school, fell Jules Massa, the body guard of the late clandestine FLNC leader François Santoni. Across the street, there is a plaque in honour of “Doctor Lafay”, placed between the pizza truck in which a vendor was killed and the former chamber of agriculture in front of which its president, Lucien Tirroloni, was gunned down by twenty-five 9mm rounds in 1990 during a Christmas ceremony. Lafay, a veterinarian, had created an association to help the victims of terrorism.

Wounded in 1982 by three FLNC bullets, he was asked, five years later to talk about "the violence" by France 3 Corsica television station. On leaving the studio, he was shot like a rabbit, on the pavement out front. Archive photos show "Doctor Simeoni" a nationalist hero from Aléria, his opponent in the television debate, giving the unfortunate man mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

“Better to be the butcher than the calf”

"Violence invades the landscape, moulds mind sets, organises society, feeds conversations, darkens newspaper columns, litters the decor with ruins and pollutes the streets," wrote the severe Corsican essayist Nicolas Giudici before he was murdered in 2001.  At the bottom of the Cours Napoleon is the notorious General Fiorella Street [the site of a bomb attack earlier this year].

One of the city's rare memorial plaques can be found at the Kallisté-Bouffe Bakery where gendarmes from the nearby station stop to pick up a sandwich. It was here that on February 1998, regional prefect Claude Erignac was "foully murdered" while on his way to the Kallisté Theatre. In the window of the now unused theatre nothing has changed. "The Corsican Brothers" by Alexander Dumas, which takes place in the village of Sollacaro, is still on the bill as it was fourteen years ago. And the Avignon Orchestra is still playing Schubert's Unfinished Symphony.

It's still through the city's bars that, in a matter of minutes, news of the latest "malamorte" – a violent death – makes the rounds of Ajaccio, followed by a litany of sayings: "Better he than I", "Better to be the butcher than the calf", "Better to see the police than the priest". These are often accompanied by a gesture of helplessness: "If you don't know why he is dead, he does". The murder then becomes the sole source of conversation for several days – but as soon as someone comes up to a neighbouring table, voices are lowered.

A resident of Ajaccio explains, but on condition that his name be withheld – fifty- seven years after the fact – that, as a child, after having a glass of grenadine at the Sporting Café, he heard gun shots and shouted: "'They killed François!' I still remember the whack my father gave me." Murders are only spoken about between intimates, "especially in the summer when all the windows are open," he explains.

“It is part of our heritage”

At best, the victims will have a room in the courthouse named after them as will probably be the case for the late barrister Antoine Sollacaro, or maybe a boulevard as did Marie-Jeanne Bozzi, murdered on April 21, 2011 in a parking lot in Porticcio, the town of which she was the mayor. On the shore side of the Cours Napoleon, not far from the regional administrative offices, who remembers that a nationalist activist, Yves Manunta, nearly died there in 1996? Ninety-nine bullets were not enough to get the better of him. In November 2011, less than a hundred yards from his first battleground, some fifty bullets again whistled past him. His wife and his 10-year old daughter were wounded – they are today under the surveillance of the protection service for high-level personalities.

In between the attacks, Yves Manunta became one of the two founders of SMS, a security company and the island's third largest employer, responsible for airport and port security in Corsica and on the French Riviera. But he had a falling out with his partner, Antoine Nivaggioni. Wearing a bullet-proof vest, facing the door of the bistrots where he used to come for a ride on his scooter, Yves Manunta was still joking at the beginning of the summer: "They call me The Survivor". But on July 9 some hit men finished him off at the end of the street on which he refused to live like a cornered rat. "At the bend, we are forced to think of him every day," says a civil servant who works at the Corsican Parliament, located just a hundred metres away.

A little further down, towards the sea, is where the other SMS partner, Antoine Nivaggioni, was executed on October 18, 2012. Everybody in Ajaccio knew "Antoine". He was the son of the owners of the La Parisienne green grocers, the one open late at night on the Cours Napoleon. Two men popped out of a chest on the roof of a car parked in front of the building. Using shotguns, handguns and assault weapons, the shooters did not give him a chance that day. "At least they filled the holes," sighs a resident in front of the signs of impact that pepper the wall. A dab of plaster slabbed over the stigmata of a murder that the city would rather forget.

"The dead, we think of them several days, several weeks then it passes, just like everything," says a hairdresser on Fesch Street, the city's shopping street on which a member of Ajaccio's gangs was gunned down on January 29, 2009. "How can I put it? It is part of our heritage," he suggests. "If we put up funerary slabs every time, the city would be like Calvary," adds another, using nearly the same words as [French writer Prosper] Mérimée to speak of the "cemetery" that Porta Square in Sartena would become if a cross were put up each time a man fell.

“Sometimes I cross people I thought were dead”

In April, when Jean-Pierre Rossi, owner of a kebab shop near the police station was shot while taking out his trash around midnight, everybody understood that he was mistaken for another. The entire town muttered the name of the "lucky" neighbour, so to speak. The sushi vendor at the corner of the street wanted to put up a memorial plaque. Most the street's residents refused. The only funerary slab Jean-Pierre Rossi has today is the real estate agent's "For Sale" sign.

The figures of the dead must not lurk on street corners.  "It's not cowardice; it's a protection, a way of life and of survival. How to do otherwise when you greet, in a bar, a guy who's done eighteen years of jail time?" asks a local journalist. Corsican society, he says, is a society based on lies about itself. "The island has no function other than as a decor, like in French 19th century literature. We are the last to imagine that Corsica is a protected region. We live in a kind of Cinecitta without human figures," he explains.

There are no literary traces to be found in this murder tour, not even obliquely in local whodunits. It is not in the guide books either. "I thought about publishing a book of photos of the roadside crosses that dot the island but I gave up," admits publisher Jean-Jacques Colonna of the Istria publishing house, "I could see it wouldn't fly. So, murders..."

In the morning, at the terraces of the Golfe or the Napoleon cafes, Ajaccio old-timers check out the obituaries in local daily Corse-Matin before sending out their letters of condolences in the afternoon. "After a while you know everybody," they say. But when their brains are picked to understand the locations and the mysteries of this funeral tour, a mischievous back-tracking immediately occurs: "I have no memory. Sometimes I cross people in the street that I thought were dead, things go so quickly."

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