1931: Rule of law flouted, gendarmes on the front line, an unprecedented mobilization against crime in Corsica

The bloody clashes between the police and bandits push the prefect to use “the strong way”. Laval launches a vast operation “purification of the maquis” sweeping wide with 600 men and armored cars

One morning in November 1931, the access roads to Ajaccio were blocked, the telephone and the telegraph cut off. Villages serving as refuges for bandits, surrounded. Decided in high places under the control of Pierre Laval – President of the Council and Minister of the Interior – this large-scale expedition aims to put a stop to banditry on the island. To carry out this unprecedented operation, nearly 600 mobile guards are transported from Marseille by boat. Impressive, the device includes six armored cars, a tank, trucks and camping equipment. This mobilization follows an alarming report from the prefect Seguin: “The time seems to have come to use the hard way. The population, which, moreover, has done nothing to shake off the yoke of banditry, is beginning to strongly criticize, and not entirely without reason, the failure of the public authorities. Because it must be recognized that the prosecution was not very energetic, and that the gendarmerie showed weakness, to say the least. » (1)

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The situation has become critical. The clash between law enforcement officials and bandits has been in the news for years: “Between 1927 and 1931, nine soldiers from the gendarmerie (as well as the Bastia police commissioner) were killed by bandits, five wounded and three gendarmes who narrowly escaped death. » (2)

The last bloody act dates from November 2, 1931, when the gendarmes had to face the band of Caviglioli, a week before the militarized intervention. This carnage had a disastrous effect on the morale of the troops, as Lieutenant-Colonel Delavallade’s report indicates: “Of the thirty-one gendarmes assigned – recently – to Corsica by ministerial decision, fifteen were Corsican. Of these fifteen, three have requested the cancellation of their assignment since the assassination of the chief quartermaster Falconetti and of the gendarme Cathelineau is known. » (3)

The fight against the bandits took a sharp turn in the 1930s, according to the analysis of Paul Bourde and Jean-Baptiste Marcaggi, estimating that “the banditry and vendetta which are linked come from the difficult relationship that the islanders maintain with the ‘judicial institution’. Inherited from the Genoese period, the reflex to do justice to oneself – firmly opposed by Pasquale Paoli – persisted under the Third Republic where the problem also arose in political terms, the responsibility of the clans being incriminated by Paul Bourde, a daily journalist Curator Le Temps: “There is no repression, because repression would risk removing votes from the clan in power. It would be politically inappropriate. » (4)

But the problem is deeper, banditry being considered as an institution by a population, which, out of fear or sympathy, provides help and support to “honor bandits”. “Local self-esteem carefully conceals everything that would make banditry appear infamous in the eyes of foreigners. » (5)

Impunity of bandits, inefficiency of public authorities

Notably, the very definition of the bandit differs from one institution to another, according to the observations of Paul Bourde. For the Public Prosecutor’s Office, those in absentia and those whose case is in progress are declared bandits. The prefecture adds “all individuals suspected of crimes, whether these crimes have been investigated or not”. The gendarmerie names bandit “anyone who holds the maquis, whether for an attack against people or for a simple offense”. At the podium, Minister Laval, criticized by the press, justifies the search, proclaiming: “The operation was essential. There have been 50 crimes in the arrondissement of Ajaccio over the past two years and 6 gendarmes have fallen under the bullets. »

The theme of the Corsican bandit is exploited from the XIXe century as an attraction by tourist guides, with nuances. If Bellacoscia, from the top of his family refuge of Pentica, is difficult to approach – Émile Bergerat who accompanied Prince Roland Bonaparte experienced this – Spada parades in front of the cameras of Pathé and holds a salon, an attitude that will play against him in his trial. It is not rare to read in the national daily newspapers the “exploits” of a Corsican bandit who confessed to a journalist.

In this context, the gendarmes struggle to maintain order and enforce the rule of law. “Demoralized, the soldiers of the independent company strive to avoid direct confrontation with the bandits, delegating their hunt when they do not give it up completely. » (6) Exceptionally, the gendarmerie is offered the help of the bandits themselves! This is the case of the young Micaelli. “During the war, Micaelli contributed to maintaining order in Fiumorbo and helped the gendarmes track down or kill deserters who took refuge in the maquis. » (7)

Some bandits live confined in caves as hermits, while other bandits lead easy lives. They are called “i parcittori”, tax collectors, because they levy a “tax”, holding the population to ransom, which leaves people wondering about the effectiveness of the state. “Spada, he extorts the postal service of Lopigna, which he considers to be his property. » (8) He will be guillotined in 1935 for more serious crimes.

Some criminals display boundless arrogance, such as this gang leader who introduces himself as “the governor of the canton of Zicavo”, and who writes to the prefect’s driver to complain about the affront he made to him by not not stopping in the crossing of Petreto-Bicchisano as he had demanded… In the fight between gendarmes and bandits, how to explain “the inefficiency of the first and the impunity of the second”? If the numerical advantage is on the side of the constabulary, tracking down bandits remains dangerous. Searches and arrests follow one another at a steady pace since November 1931, but it will be necessary to wait until 1934 for banditry to mark a halt.

The gendarmerie favors two strategies: offering capture bonuses for those who allow the arrest of criminals, and leaving it to the clans to interfere in the problems of banditry. “Combined, these principles posed real ethical problems for the administration, and proved to be very costly, especially in a country where taxes were not properly collected…” (9)

According to Gregory Auda, author of a documented work on the thorny issue of banditry in Corsica, the actions implemented between 1927 and 1931 “gave limited results. »

(1) Memorial of the Corsicans; (2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9) Simon Fieschi. The gendarmes in Corsica. 1927-1934. Defense Historical Service; (4) Paul Bourde. In Corsica, clan spirit. Political mores Vendettas. C. Levy 1887.

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1931: Rule of law flouted, gendarmes on the front line, an unprecedented mobilization against crime in Corsica

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