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Europe Friday, 9 July, 1999, 09:41 GMT 10:41 UK
The Corsican conundrum
Rhod Sharp (with Corsican friend) at Chez Francis, the beach restaurant at the centre of a scandal which has convulsed France
By Rhod Sharp

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Felix is a true Corsican: not very big from head to toe. But his barrel chest strains his shirt, and he uses his shoulders to jemmy open the conversation. He also has the close-cropped haircut that is the trademark of all Corsican nationalists.

We are on the oleander-framed terrace of his restaurant overlooking the new harbour in Bastia, Corsica's second city. Some Corsicans - and certainly all of Bastia's inhabitants - would say its first.

What are you doing in Corsica, Felix wants to know. We tell him, and it begins. A catechism, sotto voce, on the current state of Corsica's relations with the French state, still vilified by "true" Corsicans for its bloody invasion of the island 230 years ago.

Felix is currently preoccupied by the arrest of five people suspected of the shocking murder of France's highest government representative on the island. Claude Erignac, Prefect of Corsica, was assassinated in 1998 on a street in Ajaccio. Many Corsicans think the state been punishing the whole island for it ever since.

"It wasn't them" he says, shaking his head and gazing over the harbour wall. "They'll have to let them go. But it's convenient for now."

A murky tale

The five, suspected of belonging to a Corsican nationalist commando unit, were arrested May 22. A sixth man, Yvan Colonna, has so far eluded arrest. This amuses Felix. "He's gone" he says, with a dangerous grin.

Corsica's natural beauty has been offset by political (and criminal) violence and corruption
The idea of a latterday Corsican bandit, hiding out in the maquis and evading the long arm of the law, pleased even people who had no truck with Erignac's savage murder.

Trust in the security forces was already at running low before a bungled attempt to set nationalist groups at each others' throats backfired spectacularly - and literally - on April 20 1999 with the near- immolation of a captain of gendarmes turned arsonist. Chez Francis was one of hundreds of illegally-built (and hugely popular) beach restaurants, which also usually neglect to pay their taxes.

The previous Prefect, Bernard Bonnet, had cracked down hard on this sort of petty rule-breaking in Corsica. Now, he sits in jail in Paris, as the presumed author of the plot to burn the restaurant until investigators prove otherwise. So novel is this imprisonment of a Prefect that Corsicans keep up a stream of bitter jokes.

"Need a fire started?" sneers the newest graffiti on a daubers' favourite wall in Ajaccio. "Ring the GPS." The GPS was a special unit set up by Bonnet to crack down on terrorists. Since the gendarmes' destruction of a fine beach restaurant (and an unknown number of careers in politics and law enforcement) the GPS now exists only on walls. The restaurant was rebuilt, in time for summer.

An end in sight?

The Bonnet scandal has hardly helped the French to press their case for law and order on the island. Now, it's Corsicans themselves who are calling for a halt to the ethos of violence.

Dominique Bucchini, mayor of Sartene
Dominique Bucchini, a Communist Mayor in the town of Sartene, who's already spoken out against political violence (and been bombed for his pains), told me: "I think that as a man, as a responsible politician, you have to call on people to work together rather than destroy. Violence is like an illness here - and it has to stop before we can return to democracy."

The new Prefect, Jean-Pierre Lacroix, was only five weeks into the job when he held his first press conference June 16 and admitted to taking daily walks in the streets where his predecessor Erignac was gunned down. To the astonishment of local reporters, whose only contact with his predecessor was a whiff of exhaust from gendarmes' Harleys, M. Lacroix insisted that "direct contact is indispensable."

The fire has left Corsica's notoriously faction-ridden nationalist parties united as never before, but no-one is sure how long the alliance will hold. With an Irish professor as mediator, the political parties met the French government on a Finnish offshore island last summer and there's talk of another round of discussions.

Jean-Guy Talamoni of the Corsica Nazione grouping
For now, the mood is assertive. Jean-Guy Talamoni, a snappily-dressed figurehead of the nationalist bloc, told us that "We believe Corsica is entering a new stage of history, and if Paris can stop using its current military and police tactics - listen and learn for once - this could pave the way for the possibility of a dialogue."

All change, then, for Corsica's nationalist hard men? Felix knits his brow and puckers his lower face into a fist. "We'll see" he says. The bristles part and spring back as he runs a stubby hand over his head. "It's not over. Not at all."

Also in this edition of Crossing Continents: a visit to a diviner who can rid you of that most Corsican of afflictions, the evil eye; and we delve into the communal roots of the island's extraordinary style of polyphonic singing.

Dominique Siarelli, Corsica, June 1999
a local businessman, describes the tensions between Corsica and the mainland
A Filetta perform Corsican traditional song, 6/1999
performed here by local group A Filetta...
See also:

20 May 99 | Europe
08 Feb 98 | Analysis
10 Sep 98 | Europe
09 Feb 98 | Europe
06 Feb 98 | Europe
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