Trial starts for men involved in Corsica beach brawl

Corse Sisco

Corse Sisco

The trial begins Thursday of five men involved in a violent brawl that injured five people and required 100 police officers to break up in a Corsican village in August. Lawyers have warned that “local tensions” could disrupt the proceedings.

Franck Rastoul, chief prosecutor for Bastia where the trial is set to take place, denied a request Thursday morning to hold the trial outside of Corsica. The request came from a lawyer for Mustafa, Abdelillah and Jamal Benhaddou, three brothers accused of provoking the brawl. A lawyer for the Benhaddou brothers said that “the serenity of the proceedings was threatened by local tensions”.

The brothers grew up on Corsica but were born in Morocco. Jamal and Mustafa Benhaddou live in the area of Bastia, Corsica’s second city, while Abdelillah Benhaddou lives in Spain. Mustafa is already known to the police, and has been convicted of weapons trafficking and drug offenses.

Also standing trial are Lucien Straboni, a baker, and Pierre Baldi, a civil servant, both from Sisco, the village where the brawl took place. Corsica’s independence party, Corsica Libera, has called for a demonstration in support of Straboni and Baldi during the proceedings.

Beach brawl

According to the Bastia prosecutor and to eyewitness accounts published in the French daily Le Parisien on Tuesday, the August 13 brawl began after the Benhaddou brothers and their families blocked the entrance to a beach in Sisco with a panel in order to appropriate it for their private use. When an 18-year-old Sisco resident came to the beach, Mustafa tried to attack him with a knife, the paper reported.

Soon after, a crowd of Sisco villagers arrived at the beach to confront the Benhaddou family. Blows were exchanged, rocks were thrown, and cars were set on fire. Police and gendarmes had to intervene to stop the violence and evacuate members of the Benhaddou family who had been wounded. According to Le Parisien, Baldi kicked Jamal Benhaddou while he was on the ground, and Straboni punched Benhaddou while he was being evacuated.

An ‘ethnicised’ incident?

Rumours and controversy have surrounded the investigation of the brawl, which came amid two years of intercommunity tension in Corsica. According to early reports from AFP, witnesses said the brawl broke out when tourists tried to take pictures of women bathing in burkinis, a type of swimwear worn by some Muslim women that covers everything but the face, hands and feet. However, later in August the prosecutor investigating the brawl said that no burkinis were involved.

The initial media reports linked the Corsica scuffle to a national debate that was taking place over burkinis and Islam during the summer after several French mayors banned burkinis from municipal beaches. Sisco’s mayor ordered a burkini ban the Monday after the brawl.

The federal prosecutor and the media have since been accused of “ethnicising” the Sisco incident. SOS Racisme, a French NGO, released a statement on August 18 saying that “the public authorities and the media complacently presented the brawl as a confrontation between ‘young Corsicans’ and ‘young people of North African origin’”.

Mounting tensions

Corsica is known for its history of anti-outsider sentiment and violent nationalism. Although a French island, its culture was largely shaped by hundreds of years of invasions from North African Moors and Italian city-states.

“Corsican nationalism is very strong and sometimes it is tinged with what one [could] call, certainly, xenophobia,” Jacques Frémeaux, a professor of French colonial history at the Sorbonne, told FRANCE 24.

Although the “Isle of Beauty” was formally annexed to France in 1789, some Corsicans still see the French as outsiders or invaders, Frémeaux explained.

The National Liberation Front of Corsica, a separatist group, has claimed responsibility for hundreds of bombings and murders since its founding in 1976. In the early 2000s, some bombings targeted the island’s growing Muslim population.

The past two years have seen confrontations between Muslim and French residents that reached a climax on Christmas night in 2015, when two fireman were attacked while responding to a call in a poor immigrant-dominated neighbourhood of the capital, Ajaccio. The next day a Muslim prayer hall in the same neighbourhood was ransacked and copies of the Koran were partially burned. Two days of anti-Muslim protests in Ajaccio followed, with hundreds of marchers shouting, “This is our home!” and “Arabs get out”.

The Paris-based think tank National Consultative Commission of Human Rights found that in 2015 Corsica was the French region with the highest number of anti-Muslim incidents per capita.