From the “milieu” to the “bandes organisées”: a short story of organized crime in France
Does such a thing as a “French mafia” exist? In my first episode on foreign mafias for Bar Lume, the Italian podcast on organized crime, mafia and terrorism, you will learn how France went from the golden age of gangsters in the 1930s to the bloody 2000s all the way up to the present day.
Listen to the original podcast (in Italian) here.
“Keep silence, and silence will protect you.” No, this proverb about omertà, the mafia code of silence about criminal activity and the refusal to cooperate with law enforcement, is not Sicilian, but Corsican. The proponents of the earliest forms of mafia à la française originated in fact from Corsica, and it is in Corsica that the milieu, the quintessential form of French organized crime, maintains its stronghold till the present day.
The origins: 1880–1925
The history of the milieu begins a long time ago, around 1880. I will not dwell on the origins of the term as by fellow host Andrea has already talked about it in the episode “The dead languages of crime”, which I encourage you to listen. It’s 1880 and Corsica is a poor island. Many of its inhabitants emigrate: Marseilles, Antilles, South America are some of the preferred destinations.
It is in Marseille, in the Panier district, that the Corsicans- alonside some locals, notably those of Italian origin — find fertile ground for implanting illicit trafficking: the city is in turmoil, rapidly turning from a placid and exotic Mediterranean capital into an industrial hub. The local proletariat, in ruthless competition with the cheap labor provided by immigrants, is feverishly searching for alternative forms of income. It is in this context that the first French criminal organizations emerge: their main activity is the exploitation of sex work, but they are also involved in international trafficking, gambling and the resale of stolen goods. As you can guess, the affiliates of such organizations are often of Corsican or Italian descent.
Between 1880 and 1890, international trafficking, especially of women and counterfeit coins, flourishes, facilitated by the strategic location of the port of Marseille, the appearance of shipping companies guaranteeing regular lines but also the presence of the Corsican diaspora around the Mediterranean. Marseille is in fact not only a destination but also a clearinghouse for sex workers, both voluntary and trafficked, who are then sent to Cairo and Buenos Aires, via Barcelona and Dakar, respectively.
A factor contributing to these activities is the fact that in in Marseille prostitution is tolerated, at least in the so-called “reserved” neighborhood behind the City Hall. Sex work is controlled by groups of Corsicans and inner-city Marseillais, especially second-generation Italians. That these groups are real criminal organizations becomes clear between 1903 and 1905, when a war breaks out between the Saint-Jean gang, established in the reserved neighborhood, and the Saint-Mauront gang, originating from a less lucrative working-class neighborhood. According to several French sources, this episode marks the beginning the milieu marseillais. Indeed, clashes with gangs from the Joliette and Lazaret neighborhoods follow, and soon the violence spread to the suburbs.
Another sector that sees increasing criminal infiltration in Marseille at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries is gambling. This time, however, the criminals running the business are not impoverished young men but wealthy middle-aged men. The organization of bets on races denotes a particular level of sophistication: the market is divided among agencies whose top officials are never identified by the authorities. The gambling house sector, on the other hand, is more varied: there are of different sizes and types og gaòbling houses, set up inside licensed clubs, complicit bars or private apartments frequently changed so as not to arouse suspicion. The latter, together with prostitution, fuels a parallel real estate market. To learn more about the ways in which criminal organizations profit from gambling, I invite you to listen to the episode of another of my fellow hosts, Riccardo: “Gambling: mafias in the world of gaming.”
While in the 1910s, Marseilles gangsters bought cutting-edge car s and guns to carry out train and armored car robberies, between the 1920s and 1930s it is trafficking that prevails. Counterfeit currency trading was replaced by arms trafficking, especially towards countries at war like Spain. Trafficking in women and the exploitation of prostitution remain important but are ovetaken by drug trafficking in terms of profit margins. In the world of gambling, slot machines provide a new and attractive opportunity for profit. During this period the Corsicans also extend their influence beyond Marseille, taking control of the nightlife of Montmartre, a district of Paris that, like the slums of Marseille, becomes fashionable thanks to its sordid but festive atmosphere.
The golden age: 1925–1965
In the decades between 1890 and 1930, the groups that make up the Marseille proto-milieu develop increasingly elaborate strategies to evade the authorities, including the use of false identities and front names, the omertà or “silence code” both for its members and the local population, the recruitment of fake witnesses and the threat of real ones, the hiring of the city’s best lawyers…At the same time, its members become increasingly recognizable, thanks to tattoos, nicknames and scars, as well as by a kind of code of honor and behavior.
This structuring process culminates in 1925 when the two men that are considered the first two “godfathers” of the Marseille milieu come to power. These men are Paul Carbone, a Corsican, and François Spirito, a Marseillais of Italian origin. It is them who establish the so-called “French Connection,” a channel of drug trafficking between Europe and the United States fueled by opium and, to a lesser extent, heroin, imported from Vietnam, a French colony at the time. Carbone and Spirito are also remmebered for setting up the first relationships between French criminal gangs and politics: this is how the milieu becomes a supplier of “electoral agents” for most of the political parties in Marseille. These “agents” join the police forces set up by elected representatives, intimidate their opponents, carry out election fraud, and contribute to fundraising on behalf of politicians. In return, the men of the milieu receive protection: when, in 1934, Carbone, Spirito and a third man are accused of the murder of a Paris magistrate, the deputy and deputy mayor of Marseille Simon Sabiani strenuously defends them, contributing to their prompt release.
The extremely visible power of the milieu leads Marseille to be dubbed the “French capital of crime.” The public’s somewhat romantic fascination with the gangsters who control its streets gives way to comparisons with Chicago’s gangsters. In 1938, the situation becomes untenable: the government in Paris puts the city of Marseille under special administration. At the same time, the empire of Carbone and Spirito begins its demise: they are forced to share the prostitution market with two rising Corsican gangsters, the Guerini brothers. During World War II the two groups find themselves on opposite sides: Carbone and Spirito ally themselves with the collaborationists, while the Guerinis with the Resistance. In ’43 Carbone is killed by the Resistance, while Spirito leaves France. This gives the Guerini brothers the chance to take over the business. Starting in the 1950s, the two brothers begin not only to traffick but also to refine drugs in Marseille. Under their leadership, the French Connection knows its golden years: air routes from the Paris to the US are added to the traditional naval routes out of the port of Marseille. Prominent public figures such as ambassadors and TV anchors also participate in the traffic, and are caught in scandals discussed with much fanfare in newspapers. Meanwhile, Corsican milieu families settled in North America, act as local connection for traffickers based in Marseille and start to pose a threat comparable to Cosa Nostra for U.S. authorities.
The war season: 1965- 2010
Beginning in the mid-1960s, however, the Guerini empire began to experience a downward parabola. In 1965 Antoine orders the killing of Robert Blamant, a commissioner turned gangster, killed, creating dissension with his brother Mémé and a sizable part of the milieu. Taking advantage of the Guerini’s weakening is a young Marseilles man of Italian descent, Gaetan “Tany” Zampa, who had grown up in prostitution circles and was trained in racket and gambling in Paris. Violent and bloodthirsty, Zampa disregards the milieu’s code of conduct and asserts his power through fear. After distinguishing himself in racket, he increases his power through heroin trafficking, to the point that in 1967 he orders Jacky Imbert, a Toulouse gangster known as “le Mat,”, to kill Antoine Guerini. Antoine’s death and Mémé’s arrest the following year mark the end of the Guerini era. Zampa thus resumes the reins of the Marseille milieu, albeit from the prison hospital where he is confined both for suicidal tendencies and his crimes. Upon his release in 1970, he finds himself godfather of the city. His power, however, is constantly challenged: on the one hand, American and French authorities ally themselves by inflicting hard blows on the French Connection; on the other, an old enemy of his time Paris, Francis Vanverberghe known as “The Belgian,” challenges him, causing a war that only ends with the Belgian’s arrest in 1973. To escape possible reprisals and the police, Zampa takes refuge in Italy until 1975. In his absence, however, another character rises to threaten his hegemony: Jacky Le Mat. Indeed, during the years of the war with the Belgian and of Zampa’s exile, Jacky creates his own circle, opening new markets such as working-class neighborhoods, or “cités,” and becoming a direct competitor to Zampa. When the latter discovers that Jacky exorts protection money from the same hotels, confrontation is inevitable: in 1977 Zampa pulls 22 gunshots on Le Mat, who survives, however, becoming known as “The Immortal.” A bloody war between the two follows, culminating in Zampa’s arrest in 1983 and his suicide in prison the following year.
The Belgian, who, released from prison the same year, can now take control of the French Connection and quickly establishes himself as the new godfather of Marseilles. At first he allies himself with Jacky Le Mat to cleanse the milieu from Zampa’s loyalists. Later, in 1994, he moves to Paris to run the slot machine and prostitution business around the Arc de Triomphe, leaving his brother-in-law, Tony l’Anguille, in charge of his business in Marseille.
The era of Vangverberghe, the last godfather of the Marseille milieu, ends with his execution in a Paris bar in 2000. Since then, the landscape of organized crime in France has been changing: the milieu is increasingly giving way to so-called bandes organisées, gangs structured around ethnic groups such as Maghrebi, African, East European, and Balkan, established in cités on the outskirts of major cities, particularly Paris, Marseille, Lyon, and Lille. These gangs often exercise exclusive control over the territory, making it difficult and dangerous for outsiders and law enforcement to gain access to entire neighbourhoods. Their main activities are drug dealing and trafficking, particularly hashish from Morocco and cocaine from South America, the sale of weapons from Eastern Europe and the United States, human trafficking, and the exploitation of prostitution. The milieu only survives in the hands of Corsican clans in the southern part of the country, especially in the cities of Marseille, Aix-en-Provence, Nice and Toulouse.
And this is where our story takes us back to where it all began, in Corsica. While on the mainland the milieu is increasingly having to share the market with other criminal organizations, in fact, it reigns almost unchallenged in Corsica. Characterized by stronger blood ties than the Marseille milieu, the Corsican milieu is organized into veritable clans, in which illegal activities- as well as revenges - are passed on from father to son.
The rise of the milieu in Corsica: 1980- present
The first modern manifestations of the milieu in Corsica date from the early 1980s, when two gangs were formed that were destined to dominate the island for the following 30 years: the clan of Jean-Jé Colonna in Ajaccio, in the southwest of the island, and the Brise de Mer gang in Bastia, in the northeast, named after the bar where its members used to gather.
Jean-Jé is an old-fashioned godfather: a pillar of the French Connection, he returns to Corsica in 1985 after trafficking drugs in the Americas for years. In contrast, the Brise de Mer -which resembles the Italian Banda della Magliana- specializes in robberies, both in Corsica and on the continent. Their most spectacular heist was that of the UBS bank in Switzerland in 1990: to date, authorities have been unable to prove the gang’s involvement in the case.
Common denominator between the two criminal organizations is the need to launder dirty money by reinvesting it in licit activities. This is how the milieu ends up penetrating all the folds of the Corsican economic fabric, from businesses to real estate, transportation, waste management and, more recently , even European development funds and tourism activities, especially in the southern triangle between the cities of Pianottoli, Bonifacio and Porto Vecchio. All this happens amidst the omertà of the population, the corruption of institutions, the collusion with politicians and the threats (where not the killing) of notables.
Starting in the early 2000s, this sort of “pax mafiosa” : in 2005 tensions run through the Ajaccio group, and the following year Jean-Jé Colonna dies in a car accident probably planned by a traitor. Filling the void is the Petit Bar gang, led by Jacques Santoni, a.k.a. Tahiti, a gangster famous for becoming quadriplegic after a motorcycle accident. Challenging his control of southwestern Corsica are godfather Jean-Luc Germani and the independendentist Guy Orsoni — indeed, between the milieu and the Corsican nationalists there is a complex link. Meanwhile, the Brise de Mer is beset by infighting pitting two clan leaders, Richard Casanova and Francis Mariani, against each other, culminating in the latter’s killing in an explosion in 2009. Aa bloody series of vendettas in the streets of Bastia follows, sending shock waves across the public opinion both in Corsica and in the mainland till the present day.
Is the French milieu a mafia?
In light of all these elements, can we call the French milieu a form of mafia?
After all, the gangs active in Marseille and Paris under godfathers like Carbone, Spirito, and the Guerini brothers shared a code of honor, the practice of omertà, the use of intimidation, and for some time even relations with politics. The Corsican milieu has even more elements in common with the Sicilian mafia: organization into clans, blood ties, vendettas, infiltration into the local economy…However, experts on both sides of the Alps hesitate to call French banditry a form of mafia. Indeed, it lacks an overarching organization similar to the Interprovincial Commission (or Cupola) that coordinated Cosa Nostra’s activities until the death of Totò Riina in 2018, as well as the highly pyramidal hierarchical structure of the Sicilian Mafia. Even parallels with the Napolitan Camorra do not seem entirely adequate, as Corsican clans remain much more fragmented and horizontal than those in Campania. Another difficulty in establishing the mafia nature of the milieu lies, as is often the case outside Italy, in the legal definition of the crime.
With regard to the bandes organisées that hold sway in the suburbs of large French cities, instead, there is no doubt that it is banditry and not mafia, although this does not make the phenomenon any less difficult to eradicate.
The “milieu” is best described as a collective term referring to the various clans and gangs of Corsican-Marseillais origin that characterize the French criminal landscape than a criminal organization in its own right. Moreover, the milieu coexists with other criminal organizations, such as suburban bandes organisées and foreign mafias, particularly Italian, Nigerian, and Eastern European.
The increasingly systematic infiltration of clans into Corsica’s economic and political life and the bloody series of vendettas that has shaken the island in recent years, however, is leading more and more journalists, researchers, and institutions to sound the alarm of the risk of “mafiosization” of the Corsican milieu. To give you an idea of the gravity of the phenomenon, since 2009 there have been proportionately more clan-related violent crimes in Corsica (a region with a population of only 260,000 people) than in Sicily, which has 4.8 million inhabitants.
But not all is lost. The first piece of good news is that, the French police have created a special unit dedicated to fighting organized crime, which has managed to report some successes against groups such as the Petit Bar gang. The second piece of good news is that there are more and more repentants willing to cooperate with the police following the example of Claude Chossat, a supporter of Mariani during the Brise de Mer internal war. Repentants’ testimonies are key to securing prison sentences up to 20 or 30 years. The third and biggest reason for hope is the emergence of citizen movements in Corsica that aim to establish a culture of legality on the island.