Killings on restive Corsica raise French fears

Associated Press
French Interior Minister Manuel Valls, left, and Justice Minister Christiane Taubira answer reporters questions during a press conference, in Ajaccio, Corsica island. France pledged Thursday to restore order in Corsica, a day after a prominent shopkeeper was killed on a busy street on the Mediterranean island long troubled by violent separatists and organized crime. The death of Jacques Nacer, who was also chief of Corsica's chamber of commerce, was the second high-profile killing on the island in a month. In October, a prominent defense lawyer was shot to death as he stopped for gas en route to work.  (AP Photo/Jean-Pierre Belzit)
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PARIS (AP) — A prominent Corsican shopkeeper was killed by a masked gunman on one of the French island's busiest streets. Nearby, a defense lawyer was shot by two men on a motorcycle as he stopped for gas on his way to work.

The two high-profile recent deaths in the capital, Ajaccio, prompted the French government on Thursday to pledge to restore order on the Mediterranean island, long troubled by violent separatists and organized crime.

France's highest security official and its top justice official insisted that Corsica, an island of 300,000 people with their own language and culture and known as "The Isle of Beauty," is an integral part of France and would not be abandoned to criminals.

Violence is a daily affair in Corsica, though largely confined to the criminal underworld. But the two most recent killings in the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte struck down two men considered pillars of the community, and appeared to mark a turning point for a government that had largely let the turbulence slide in recent years.

Jacques Nacer owned a clothing store in Ajaccio's bustling commercial district and was chief of Corsica's chamber of commerce. Antoine Sollacaro was a lawyer who handled some of the island's most sensitive cases, including defending the man convicted in the killing of a local official.

Both Nacer and Sollacaro, according to French media, had ties with the former nationalist leader Alain Orsoni, who returned to Corsica in 2008 after years abroad and now leads the local soccer club.

Interior Minister Manuel Valls said an average of 33 people are killed each year in Corsica — or about 20 percent of France's gangland murders — on a tiny territory that holds less than 1 percent of the country's total population.

Valls said a culture of fear had taken root as violence becomes more pronounced.

"In Corsica, people know but they do not say," he said.

More than 200 kilometers (120 miles) off the coast of France and with an insular culture that extends to an obscure dialect closely linked to Italian, Corsica has always been isolated from the mainland.

But Valls said it would not be abandoned to criminals and declared that French law would prevail.

"Corsica is France," he said. "It is not a territory apart."

Christiane Taubira, France's justice minister, acknowledged that only four of the 60 most recent killings on the island had ended in convictions and promised that the government would do better.

"A minority of murderers, assassins, crooks and mafiosi do not control the territory," she said. "It's the large majority of Corsicans who control the territory, and they will have the last word."

Corsica, the starting point for next year's Tour de France, is a tourist destination famed for its wild beaches and mountain vistas. Twenty years ago, the island was the scene of dozens of bombings, most of them linked to the homegrown nationalist movement that has persisted since the island was definitively taken over by the French under Napoleon in 1796.

Hoping to sap some of the nationalists' strength, the French government tried to wipe out the Corsican tongue, a mix of French and Italian that UNESCO lists as a language in danger of extinction. But the language has made something of a comeback in recent years and is again taught in schools.

But Valls said France and Corsica were one and called on Corsicans to mobilize for their own future.

"If you know something, you have to talk. Everyone has to take responsibility," he said.

After the lawyer's death, the French government promised a series of measures to bring the Corsican administration closer to the central government in Paris.

Among them were sending more investigators and improving efforts against money laundering, drug trafficking and bribes for lucrative public works contracts.

Valls send the government will send 22 new officers to bolster the police and gendarmes.

"The state will not surrender, will not retreat," said Taubira.

Patrick Strozda, the highest French official in Corsica, said the latest killing tipped the balance. The shopkeeper was shot by a masked man as he closed up for the night, on a pedestrian-only street filled with stores.

"This horrible crime, right in the street, only reinforces the determination of all law enforcement to end this death spiral," Strozda said in a television interview.

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