The Mafia beyond the Alps: the case of France and Corsica

The mafia is everywhere in Europe. A clear statement and, mainly, a fact.

And yet, it is necessary to understand if the mafia exists – in another European country – because of its connections with the Italian mafia presence within the country or because it has developed its own autochthonous mafia. Italy is often referred to as “the home of the mafia”, assuming that organised crime can stay contained in specific territories. The dialogue hosted by the Eurispes magazine with Professor Fabrice Rizzoli, Professor of Geopolitics of Crime at Sciences Po, Institute of Political Studies in Paris, focus France and Corsica. Rizzoli is also the director of Crim’HALT, an association that studies and analyse these phenomena, advocating for legislative measures to combat organised crime in France.

Can one talk about mafias in France, and if yes, in which terms? Is there a kind of migration of Italian mafias, or is there a French organised crime that has evolved into a mafia?

I remember how, in 1986, politicians on French television said that the radioactive cloud from Chernobyl would stop at the border. Some still believe that the same thing happens with mafias. Actually, a parliamentary commission – established in 1992 – deals with mafias and also, since 2010, there has been a non-public report by the French judicial police, SIRASCO (Information, Intelligence and Strategic Analysis Service on Organized Crime). This report analyses the foreign mafias present in France: they commit theft where great specialisation is required (the Camorra, Romanian and Georgian mafias) for drug trafficking, where Albanians prevail. The position of the ‘Ndrangheta is more articulated, relying on its members who have moved to France and have established an alliance with French gangsters for over 40 years.

Finally, France is a money-laundering country for all criminal organisations, especially in the real estate sector. But what is actually missing is an analysis – also an academic one – to understand what French organised crime is and understand whether or not a French mafia exists.

Having said that, even SIRASCO writes that there is no French mafia.

However, the arrest in June 2010 of the leaders of the Corsican-Marseille Barresi-Campanella clan, who were arrested on a yacht in the port of Golfe-Juan, demonstrates the existence of a “mafia-type organisation on national territory: a sustainable and hierarchical structure, multiple criminal activities, links with the economic and social fabric, corruption, sophisticated money-laundering systems and alliance with other kinds of organised crime”.

As the director of Crim’HALT, you achieved a significant victory with the vote in the Assembly to approve a law on confiscated property. Why has there never been such a law before and how is its approval in legislative terms moving, are there any opposing parties?

I couldn’t imagine that the path would be so tricky and challenging. In December 2009, we protested in front of the EU Council of Ministers in Brussels in freezing cold weather and with a small group of anti-mafia activists. One must always be active, not just do the writing! It was a piece of evidence to us: we had more than 15 years of experience in the field from the Italian experience. The social use of confiscated properties should be applied in all European countries. Confiscation, as an institution, only started in 2010 in France and the assets are sold on the market instead. Let’s say that the Ministry of Finance was against the social reuse of confiscated assets simply because it wanted to collect cash back. The National Assembly approved the proposal in 2016 – thanks to our “lobbying” activity and with the support of the solidarity economy world – but it was later rejected by the Constitutional Court on the grounds of formal requirements. It was hard; we thought we would succeed. Unfortunately, there is much ignorance in understanding the mafia phenomena, unlike in Italy, where you have a widely developed approach.

Crim’HALT was indeed created with this intention, to try to provide information about a neglected topic and to ask for citizens’ access to, among other things, Sirasco reports or court rulings. In 2019, we had the unanimous vote three times from the parliamentarians. Only one “compliant” vote from the Senate was still missing: a formality. But then the health crisis came along and blocked everything.

So now 2021 comes, and since I didn’t see our bill on the Senate’s agenda, I called my department’s Senator Alain Richard (former Socialist Minister of Defence), so he put our law back on the agenda.

I do not doubt that the Senate will vote on the “justice of proximity” legislation, introducing the social use of confiscated property in France on 1 April.

After the National Assembly, on 1 April 2021 the Senate also adopted the bill “aimed at improving the effectiveness of local justice and criminal response”.

Nevertheless, it will be the beginning of a new battle: we must then obtain the implementing decree and then monitor who will have the right to these goods because we must not forget that, unfortunately, the social use of confiscated goods will not be compulsory in France. 

What happens in Corsica, where there is a real ‘Corsican mafia’ and a high concentration of murders in relation to the inhabitants?

The French Government has been intimidated by violent independence groups in Corsica for the last 40 years.  Since this island is France’s geostrategic aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean, the State has left the armed fight for control of the territory against terrorists in the hands of organised crime. In exchange, Corsican criminality has been granted broad favours from illegal to legal activities. Indeed, systemic violence is horrendous in Corsica. Impunity is widespread. The judiciary cannot react because there is no mafia association crime, and mafia’s properties confiscation is not compulsory.

Moreover, the cooperating witness status is another difference regarding Italy because those who have committed murders are not allowed to cooperate. We have to consider that as many as 30 mafia murders were committed every year since the 1990s on an island of only 340,000 inhabitants and 8500 square kilometres wide. This is the contradiction of not applying the cooperating witness status to those who have committed a murder. By doing so, you would not have had the collaboration of Brusca, for example, in Italy, which would have been an absolute legislative folly from my point of view.

Only recently, we have seen developments, confiscations, criminal wars have been stopped in the bud, but a cultural change is needed so that the social use of the confiscated property is fundamental. 

People always talk about mafias in Europe, but apparently in random terms. Is there an expansion of mafias in Europe, and what is it needed to counter it from your perspective?

When one looks at the work of Europol in recent years, I think that the cooperation structure has reached maturity. It is practical, and countries are more willing to cooperate. France and Italy, for example, carry out joint investigations. In Europe, however, there is a lack of crimes of mafia association. Besides, there is a structural problem, which I see while considering mafias as a product of society’s legal domain.

In my opinion, white-collar Mafiosi are more prevalent in Europe, having countless opportunities offered by the liberal economy. Indeed, several tax havens exist, and the faster flow of goods as in the Antwerp’s port, a finance arrangement without clear rules and the chance to launder money by taking advantage of divergent regulations.  This is how the mafia puts on its suit and tie and makes itself at ease, and this not only by now but for a long time. 

Is there a conscious civil society about the danger of the mafias in France, as well as in Corsica, and does it react, or just a few isolated opinions?

French civil society suffers from a lack of awareness about the phenomenon of organised crime. That is why for the last 3 years, Crim’HALT has been organising a workshop on confiscated assets from the mafias in the Naples area in 2019 and in Calabria in 2020, within the framework of an Erasmus project funded by the European Commission. We bring those working in the French third sector and mayors and journalists on the ground in Italy. It is the paradigm of “social anti-mafia”, meaning the fight against organised crime with the citizens’ engagement, through the redistribution for social purposes of assets confiscated from the mafias. Since there are assets seized in France, a transnational collaboration network can be implemented. It must be our approach and our aim. Otherwise, the mafias are the ones remaining international. Since September 2019, two anti-mafia associations have been formed in Corsica, and we try to raise awareness about mafia’s related issues.

Let’s picture what it is to do anti-mafia in Corsica, a region that we only imagine as a tourist destination. Conducting anti-mafia activities today in many parts of Europe is like what you Italians did in the 1980s: it is challenging but not impossible.

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