AJACCIO, France (AFP) – Several hundred people marched in Corsica on Sunday after two days of violent anti-Arab riots, sidestepping a ban on demonstrations in a flashpoint neighborhood by taking their protests elsewhere in the island capital Ajaccio.
Two people were detained over the rioting on the French Mediterranean island, which saw demonstrators vandalize a Muslim prayer hall and set fire to books including copies of the Koran.
Corsica’s administrator Christophe Mirmand announced a ban on all protests and gatherings until at least January 4 in the poor Jardins de l’Empereur housing estate, the epicenter of the violence on Thursday through Saturday.
The ban came after hundreds of people had marched for a second straight day Saturday through several working-class districts of Ajaccio shouting slogans such as “This is our home!” and “Arabs get out.”
Two men aged in their 20s were held in custody as part of a probe into the unrest.
Dodging the ban, hundreds of people marched through other neighborhoods of Ajaccio on Sunday.
“We fight against scum, not against Arabs!” chanted the protesters.
“We aren’t thugs, we aren’t racists,” they cried as they marched to the police station and then through several low-income neighborhoods, before returning to the entrance to the Jardins de l’Empereur estate, an AFP journalist said.
Police forbade the protesters from entering the estate.
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 neighborhood 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.
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 Koran, 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.
“This behavior must stop. It hurts Corsica’s image,” Mirmand said, describing as “shocking and unacceptable” remarks that could lead to prosecution for hate speech.
The unrest came as France remains jittery following the November 13 jihadist 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 ten-fold during the peak tourist season.