Hundreds march in Corsica after violent anti-Arab protests

People take part in a demonstration in Ajaccio on Dec 27, 2015.
People take part in a demonstration in Ajaccio on Dec 27, 2015. PHOTO: AFP

AJACCIO, FRANCE (AFP) - Hundreds of people marched in Corsica on Sunday (Dec 27) after two days of violent anti-Arab riots, sidestepping a ban on demonstrations in a flashpoint neighbourhood by taking their protests elsewhere in the capital.

Two people were detained over days of rioting on the French Mediterranean island, which saw demonstrators vandalise a Muslim prayer hall and set fire to books including copies of the Quran.

Hundreds marched through poor areas of the capital Ajaccio on Saturday (Dec 26) for a second straight day, shouting slogans such as "This is our home!" and "Arabs get out".

Corsica's administrator Christophe Mirmand announced a ban on all protests and gatherings until at least Jan 4 in the poor Jardins de l'Empereur housing estate, the epicentre of the violence.

But hundreds took to the streets again on Sunday (Dec 28), dodging the ban by marching through other neighbourhoods in the capital Ajaccio, chanting: "We fight against scum, not against Arabs!"

"We aren't thugs, we aren't racists," they cried as they marched to the police station and then through several low-income areas, before returning to the Jardins de l'Empereur estate where they were blocked by the police.

The unrest followed a Christmas Eve clash in which two firefighters and a police officer were injured at the estate, home to some 1,700 people, half of them of non-French origin.

Regional official Francois Lalanne said a fire had been deliberately lit in the neighbourhood in a ruse aimed at "ambushing" the emergency services.

A firefighter told French television that about 20 people armed with iron bars and baseball bats had tried to attack them, but were unable to smash through the windows of their truck.

Two men in their 20s were held in custody as part of a probe into the unrest.

"Their involvement in the attack against the firefighters is still under investigation," said prosecutor Eric Bouillard, adding the men had had brushes with the authorities in the past.

The next day, 600 people gathered outside police headquarters in Ajaccio in a show of support for the police and firefighters. But some 300 broke away to head for the housing estate.

Shouting xenophobic slogans, the group smashed a Muslim prayer room, partially burning books including copies of the Quran, Mr Lalanne said.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls wrote on Twitter that the break-in was "an unacceptable desecration", while also condemning the "intolerable attack" on the firefighters.

Mr Mirmand said: "This behaviour must stop. It hurts Corsica's image." 

On Sunday (Dec 27) morning, there were few people out on the streets of the Jardins de l'Empereur estate, where residents were still reeling after the clashes.

"A fundamentally peaceful demonstration turned into racist violence," said one resident.

The unrest came as France remains jittery following the Nov 13 terrorist attacks in Paris that left 130 dead.

During regional elections in mid-December, Corsica's nationalist party won power for the first time.

The population of France's lush Mediterranean "Isle de Beaute" (Island of Beauty) increases by 10-fold during the peak tourist season.