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Unrest in French Overseas Territories and Corsica: Analysis of Violent Demonstration Trends From 2020 to Early 2022

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On 24 April 2022, French President Emmanuel Macron secured re-election, defeating far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. Despite his re-election to the presidency, dissatisfaction with Macron has been reflected by his relatively poor performance in both the presidential and parliamentary elections, with notable swings to both the political far-right and hard left (France24, 20 June 2022). During the presidential election, Macron lost electoral support in several regions of France and the overseas territories, with Le Pen comfortably outperforming Macron in Guadeloupe, Martinique, French Guiana, Mayotte, and Réunion (Guardian, 25 April 2022). Moreover, Macron's Ensemble coalition lost its absolute majority in parliament during legislative elections on 12 and 19 June. Ensemble lost seats to the New Ecologic and Social People's Union (NUPES), the left-wing coalition formed by hard-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and Le Pen's far-right National Rally (Euronews, 20 June 2022). While National Rally did not win any parliamentary seats in the territories, several Macron-supporting incumbent politicians lost their seats to NUPES or regionalist candidates (Le Monde, 19 June 2022). Most significantly, Secretary of State for the Sea Justine Benin lost her parliamentary seat in Guadeloupe to NUPES-supported Christian Baptiste (20 Minutes, 19 June 2022).

These political developments follow more than a year of heightened levels of demonstration activity across mainland France, overseas territories, and Corsica. Driven by opposition to coronavirus restrictions, demonstrations across mainland France,1 overseas territories,2 and Corsica surged throughout 2021, with demonstration levels remaining elevated ahead of the presidential election in April.

Although demonstrations spiked throughout French territory, analysis of this trend sheds light on complex regional dynamics. Most notably, since the beginning of 2020,3 demonstrators have been far more likely to turn violent, destructive, and/or erect barricades4 in French overseas territories and Corsica compared to mainland France. While violent demonstration levels have increased across the board, root issues vary. In Corsica, the violent death of a Corsican prisoner renewed calls for greater autonomy, while in the Americas, coronavirus restrictions rekindled discontent rooted in systemic inequality. Violent demonstration activity in the territories and Corsica reflects an underlying disconnect with the government in Paris.

This report examines the regional trends that have emerged out of increased demonstration activity in mainland France, the overseas territories, and Corsica.

Key Trends

  • Demonstration activity increased in mainland France by 61% in 2021 relative to 2020, and by 257% in French overseas territories and Corsica. Over this same period, violent or destructive demonstrations also increased by 1,120% in French overseas territories and Corsica but decreased by 5% in mainland France.
  • Since the beginning of 2021, 29% of all demonstrations across French overseas territories and Corsica --- or 256 events --- have turned violent or destructive, compared to only 2% --- or 254 events --- in mainland France.
  • Demonstrations against COVID-19 restrictions have been a significant flashpoint issue in territories in the Americas. In Guadeloupe, 58% of pandemic-related demonstrations have turned violent or destructive, while 49% turned violent or destructive in Martinique, 57% in Saint-Martin, and 15% in French Guiana.
  • Since the beating --- and subsequent death --- of an imprisoned Corsican separatist in March 2022, 31% of demonstrations on the French island of Corsica have turned violent or destructive.

Demonstrations Surge in 2021 and Remain at Heightened Levels

Demonstration activity surged across France in 2021, largely driven by demonstrations opposing the government’s implementation of coronavirus restrictions. In mainland France, demonstration activity increased 61% last year compared to 2020. Demonstrations continued at heightened levels in the months leading up to the presidential election in April, driven by continued pandemic-related events as well as multiple protests against the far right before and after the first round of the vote. During the first quarter of 2022, ACLED records nearly half — 45% — of the total number of events recorded in 2020. Labor groups, teachers, students, and health workers also held demonstrations related to concerns over high school assessments, pensions, price increases, salaries, and other socio-economic issues during this time.

The surge in demonstration activity also occurred outside of mainland France, in Corsica and France’s overseas territories. In these regions, anti-government sentiment manifested with greater intensity through more frequent violent and/or destructive demonstrations. Demonstration activity rose at a much greater rate in Corsica and France’s overseas territories — a 257% increase between 2020 and 2021 — and events have been far more likely to turn violent or destructive than in mainland France. In Corsica and the overseas territories, 29% of demonstration events since the beginning of 2021 have involved reports of violence or destructive activity, compared to only 2% in mainland France (see graph below).

In Corsica and French territories in the Americas,5 demonstrations seem to have tapped into stronger sentiments of disconnect with the French state, resulting in a higher rate of contentious events. In the Americas, Macron's electoral losses point to ongoing discontent with the government and inequality in the territories (The Guardian, 25 April 2022; Le Monde, 19 June 2022). Notably, long-standing social and economic grievances, including poverty, high living costs, and unemployment, have come to the fore during violent coronavirus-related demonstrations (Al Jazeera, 25 November 2021). In Corsica, long-running Corsican nationalist calls for greater autonomy --- and in some cases, independence --- escalated into violent demonstrations following the death of an imprisoned Corsican militant nationalist.

Reaction to Coronavirus Restrictions in Mainland France and French Territories in the Americas

Strict COVID-19 restrictions on the unvaccinated sparked widespread opposition demonstrations in France in late 2020 and throughout 2021 (see line graph below). The demonstrations came as President Macron pushed a hard line on his COVID-19 policy and publicly expressed his desire to "piss off the unvaccinated" in an effort to increase vaccine uptake (Washington Post, 5 January 2022). Demonstrations against coronavirus-related restrictions first surged in November 2020, after Macron announced a second nationwide lockdown, before surging again in March and July 2021, with the introduction of further restrictions, and peaking in August 2021. In July 2021, the introduction of compulsory vaccine health passes for access to public spaces drew demonstrators to the streets who claimed that the rule was an act of discrimination against the unvaccinated (BBC News, 21 July 2021). While some of these demonstrations turned violent or destructive, the vast majority --- 98% --- remained peaceful.

In contrast, coronavirus-related demonstrations were far more likely to turn violent or destructive across overseas territories in the Americas (see orange on the maps below). In particular, the decision to introduce a vaccine mandate for health workers drew violent opposition in November 2021, resulting in the government delaying its implementation in Guadeloupe and Martinique (France24, 26 November 2021).

Since the beginning of 2020, 58% of coronavirus-related demonstrations in Guadeloupe have turned violent or destructive, with heightened levels of violent demonstration activity also recorded in Saint-Martin (57%), Martinique (49%), and French Guiana (15%). Notably, during violent demonstrations in Martinique and Guadeloupe in November 2021, participants shot live ammunition at police officers, with rioters also firing on journalists in Martinique (Al Jazeera, 21 November 2021). Clashes between demonstrators and police also occurred in Saint-Martin and French Guiana.

Despite the government's decision to suspend the use of the controversial vaccine passport beginning on 14 March 2022 (Reuters, 3 March 2022), further violence has occurred in the region. In Martinique, six hospital security officers were seriously injured on 24 March when rioters attacked them with a corrosive liquid. The attack happened during a demonstration coinciding with a meeting between hospital authorities and unions to discuss coronavirus measures and vaccine mandates for health workers.

While the implementation of vaccine mandates was the immediate trigger for the demonstrations, they were also fueled by long-term grievances with the French government. These grievances include historical mistrust, high unemployment, high cost of living, low wages and pensions, and water supply issues, among others (Al Jazeera, 24 December 2021; Reuters, 26 November 2021; DW, 24 December 2021). The violence in French territories in the Americas underscores the continued salience of entrenched tensions between the islands and Paris over systemic economic and social inequality (Associated Press, 26 November 2021).

Violence in Corsica After the Beating of Nationalist Prisoner

The beating of Yvan Colonna, an imprisoned Corsican militant nationalist, on 2 March 2022 sparked the highest level of demonstrations in Corsica since ACLED coverage began in 2020 (see graph below). Colonna --- who was serving a life sentence for the 1998 assassination of the prefect of Corse-du-Sud department, Claude Érignac --- was beaten into a coma by a fellow prisoner and died from his injuries on 21 March. Corsican activists claimed the state failed to intervene in the beating, with some reports saying Colonna was beaten for eight minutes before guards intervened (BBC, 22 March 2022).

The spike in demonstrations included many rioting events, sparking fears of a return to nationalist violence on the island (The Guardian, 22 March 2022). Moreover, two National Liberation Front of Corsica (FLNC) militant splinter groups reactivated in September 2021 and have since claimed several violent incidents (Corse Matin, 15 February 2022). Since the beating of Colonna on 2 March, demonstrations in Colonna have turned violent or destructive at the highest level since the beginning of ACLED coverage in 2020, with 31% of demonstrations turning violent or destructive (see graph below).

After weeks of persistent unrest in Corsica in March, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin indicated his willingness to consider greater autonomy for the island (The Guardian, 16 March 2022). By the end of the month, local officials had announced a first meeting scheduled for the third week of May to renew discussions on autonomy (France 3 Régions, 28 April 2022). The planned meeting was, however, subsequently delayed until the end of June. Since the parliamentary elections in June, three re-elected nationalist representatives of Corsica have signaled their intention to cite their electoral successes in a push for greater concessions in these negotiations (Le Monde, 20 June 2022).

While this most recent spike in violence was unprecedented in recent years, other contentious issues have escalated tensions and led to outbreaks of violent nationalist demonstration activity on the island. In February 2021, for example, rioters clashed with police during a demonstration calling for the transfer of Corsican prisoners from mainland France to prisons on the island. Unresolved issues related to Corsican nationalism have the potential to trigger renewed unrest in the future.

Looking Forward

As Macron begins his second term, his government will likely continue to grapple with heightened levels of demonstration activity across France and its overseas territories. While the government has engaged in efforts to address anti-government demonstration movements in France's overseas territories, unresolved social, economic, and political issues could lead to further outbreaks of violence.

While the overall number of violent and destructive demonstrations has declined following more than a year of increased violence, unrest, including acts of property destruction, persisted during the election period. Destructive events have been reported in Corsica since March, despite the promises of political dialogue over autonomy, and are likely to continue with the reactivation of FLNC splinter groups. On 7 April, a house in Canale di Verde was partially destroyed by an explosive device. The house was found graffitied with a tag in support of Colonna. Another house was also set ablaze in Galeria in early May, with "settlers out" reportedly tagged on the residence walls (France 3 Regions, 11 May 2022).

Political developments in Corsica have also led to renewed calls for greater autonomy in other regions, including French Guiana and the mainland region of Brittany, which voted in March and May, respectively, to begin the process of asking for greater autonomy (VOA News, 29 March 2022; The Connexion, 5 May 2022). Notably, Richard Ferrand, a close ally to Macron and president of the National Assembly, lost his parliamentary seat in Brittany to NUPES candidate Mélanie Thomin (BBC News 20 June 2022).

While discontent related to increasing prices is at the forefront of the most recent protests in mainland France, Corsica, and the overseas territories, fundamental concerns over autonomy and inequality remain critical potential drivers of future demonstrations.