If you go onto the Corsican Chamber of Commerce website, you’ll learn that "the clementines produced on the island have gained the red label, attesting superior quality differentiating them from similar products and validated by sensory analyses and tastings entrusted to a panel of consumers but also to a group of specialists".

While the book written by Antoine Albertini does not question these tastings, it does look at the bitter social and human after-taste which such labels prefer to ignore. He raises the question of the conditions under which the fruit is produced in the plain of Eastern Corsica, the 12 km-wide and 100 km-long strip of land hosting large agricultural companies specialised in growing wine and fruit. The bulk of Corsica’s production of grapes, citrus fruits and kiwis comes from here, and production is equivalent to about half of the income the island gains from tourism.

The book in question – Les invisibles – is part of the recent revival of the tradition of literary reporting concerning labour issues – centred around such (French speaking) writers as Ivan Jablonka, Florence Aubenas, Nicole Malinconi and others. It could also have claimed to be a detective novel except that the plot did not stem from the author’s imagination and that any reader wanting to know the name of the killer will remain in the dark. A journalist working for Corse-Matin and Le Monde, Albertini spent several years researching the history of a murder committed on 16 November 2009. The starting point was the discovery of an unidentified corpse by someone out walking. The bottom half of his face had been ripped apart by a bullet from a hunting rifle.

The investigators were quick to establish the victim’s identity. Born in Morocco, his name was El Hassan Msarhati and he was forty years’ old. And he was basically just as invisible as any of the thousands of seasonal fruit-pickers working on the plain. But not completely invisible. A fortnight before the murder, he had worked as an interpreter for a documentary on illegal immigration. Translating the testimonials of half a dozen seasonal workers, he had suddenly stopped in order to speak about his own experience. The clip lasted just twenty-eight seconds. "I broke my hands carrying a crate of fruit and the boss sent me away because I was no longer of use. Since then, I haven’t been able to work and I can’t get back to Morocco because I’ve got no money." He agreed to give testimony, but requested that his face be kept concealed: "Because if I speak out, they’ll put a bullet through my head."

The book has two stories to it. The first involves the investigation which drew a blank. Despite following up a number of possible clues, the police were unable to put a name on the murderer. The exact motives of this crime will remain unknown to us. The other involves the human and social context of the work done by the seasonal immigrants. Nearly everywhere in Europe, the hardest and worst-paid part of agricultural work is done by squads of workers who compound the very precarious but legal status of seasonal workers with the even more vulnerable situation of "undeclared" workers. Albertini’s book is an irrevocable testimony against what is modestly called "immigration by choice".

It combines precise and demanding journalistic thoroughness with a flexible, jerky style adapted perfectly to the different registers structuring the story: the police investigation, the living and working conditions of these seasonal workers, the administrative circulars of the border police. The Eastern plain of Corsica itself becomes one of the book’s characters. This former marshland was converted into a prosperous agricultural zone under circumstances linked to the history of the world. With a view to establishing a US Air Force airbase, insecticides were sprayed intensively from 1943 onwards to get rid of the mosquitoes. This led to a turning point in the mid-1950’s, with the region becoming host to capitalist agriculture. This transformation of the Corsican agricultural went hand in hand with the arrival of ex-colonists from Morocco, followed on a more massive scale by an influx of Europeans repatriated from Algeria.

Describing a morning like any other one in the port of Bastia, the epilogue is a cry against our tendency to look the other way: "Nobody takes the slightest notice of the sad and tired group of men fi ling down the ferry gangways. With their multicoloured bags, their threadbare coats and worn-out shoes, these men to whom no one pays attention quickly merge into the background, their clothes mixing with the grey stones of the pier, the grey of the quay and the grey of the autumn sky – all the shades of their coming renunciation. They shuffle past the customs officers leaning on their cars, along the pier where HGV drivers park their trucks before embarking for Livorno or Marseille, then vanish behind the gates of the port. Several hours later, they are dropped off close to a vineyard or a clementine orchard, or perhaps a kiwi plantation."

Les Invisibles. Une enquête en Corse. Antoine Albertini, éditions JC Lattès, 2018

On the same subject, we would like to point out the thesis of sociologist Frédéric Décosse: Migrations sous contrôle. Agriculture intensive et saisonniers marocains sous contrat "OMI". Available at https://hal.archivesouvertes.fr/tel-01092682

Books ETUI

Table of contents

The bitter taste of clementines