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Goverment appeals for unity to reign in Corsica violence amid nationalism debate

media French interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve (L) speaks during a press conference during a visit to Ajaccio on December 30, 2015 on the French Mediterranean island of Corsica Pascal POCHARD-CASABIANCA / AFP

France's Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve has condemned the wave of anti-Muslim violence gripping Corsica since Christmas. On a visit to the Mediterranean island on Wednesday, Cazeneuve pledged to step up security to quell the unrest that has already seen two firefighters and a police officer injured and a Muslim prayer room ransacked.

"There can be no room for violence or racism in Corsica," Bernard Cazeneuve told reporters on Wednesday, echoing earlier comments by Prime minister Manuel Valls who insisted the government "would never back down" in Corsica.

Two firefighters and a police officer were injured on Christmas eve after being called out on a false distress call to a housing estate in the island's Ajaccio capital.

The following day, protests broke out in retaliation, which saw protesters chant racist slogans like "Arabi fora”, which means “Arabs out” in the Corsican language. A Muslim prayer room was also ransacked and several copies of the Koran set on fire.

The rioting has sparked public outcry and damaged the Mediterranean island's reputation as a breezy, welcoming tourist hot-spot prized by jet-setters.

It has also raised concern that the region is embracing the anti-immigrant agenda of the far-right Front national.

Corsica's new nationalist MP's- who were elected in local elections early December--have been forced to reassure the island's Muslim community that Corsica is not racist, and that those responsible for islamophobic violence belong to the Front National, not the nationalist party.

The Jardins de l'Empereur estate where the riots broke out, is home to some 1,700 people, half of them of non-French origin.

Bernard Cazeneuve has pledged to open up the area and offer equal opportunities to residents to break them out of the cycle of poverty, which is fuelling tensions. In the mean time, extra police officers will be booted on the ground to bring back law and order.

'Corsica is not a no-go area,' Cazeneuve insisted at the end of his visit, in response to criticism that the government had allowed the island to become a hot-bed of tension.

"We need to respect the unity of the French Republic, while at the same time recognizing the singularity of Corsica," he said, winding up a quarrel sparked by Manuel Valls that Corsica was not separate from France and never will be. 

“The French Republic is committed to preserving and reinforcing the art of living together; it brings citizens from all walks of life around the same values, history, and a shared project," Cazeneuve argued. "That's what defines the Republic."

Although critics of the government's current plans to strip dual nationals of citizenship if convicted of terrrorism, will no doubt see the irony in the minister's appeal for unity on the one hand, and arousing inequality on the other.

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