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Last Updated: Saturday, 12 July, 2003, 10:50 GMT 11:50 UK
Turbulent Corsica spurns autonomy
By Martin Buckley
In Corsica

It was 0330 on a soft summer night when a loud explosion jerked us awake. I ran onto the hotel balcony, to see a plume of white smoke slowly rising over the town of Ile Rousse. A bomb had destroyed a restaurant on the seafront.

Man stands next to a poster
The referendum's result is a bitter blow for Paris
The blowing up of public buildings isn't exactly rare in the world's trouble spots, but Ile Rousse is one of the most popular seaside resorts in one of the most desirable tourist destinations in Europe: Corsica.

Last Sunday, there was a referendum in Corsica. Independence has always been the only issue here. For centuries, the island was controlled by the Italian Republic of Genoa.

In the 1750s, Corsica saw the emergence of a republic under the leadership of a brilliant liberal intellectual, Pascal Paoli. But this early flowering of Enlightenment thought quickly crashed to an end when France supposedly "bought" the island from the Genoese.

Shock tactics

The French brutally imposed Parisian rule - and the French language - to replace the medieval Tuscan dialect spoken on the island.

For two centuries, Corsicans continued to reject the French claim to the island, but it wasn't until the 1970s that the dream of independence was truly reborn.

The evening scent of Mediterranean pine will occasionally be mixed with the smell of plastic explosive
The new freedom fighters wanted to protect their language from oblivion, and their environment from the tide of concrete overwhelming the coastlines of France and Spain. Brushed aside, as they saw it, by mainland businessmen and corrupt politicians, they turned to shock tactics.

Soon, Corsica had joined Northern Ireland and Spain's Basque country as a place of bombings and murders.

The climax of this violent campaign came five years ago, when Claude Erignac, the island's préfet, the most senior representative of the French Government, was murdered. Eight men were eventually charged.

They staunchly maintained they had committed a political act, to strike a blow at an "occupying" power.

One of the holiday homes that were blown up after the vote
Shortly after the vote, four holiday homes were blown up

But the man believed to have pulled the trigger, Yvan Colonna, evaded capture, and soon acquired mythic status. He was said to have taken refuge in the hills, like a bandit of old, hiding among the gorse and the sheep from the invaders' troops.

Corsica remains a tourist paradise, with turquoise beaches to rival those of the Caribbean. But this small island of just 260,000 inhabitants sees several bombings a week.

Driving close to the exclusive resort of Porto Vecchio, where opulent yachts loll at anchor, I was intrigued by the sight of a large white building that looked as if an earthquake had hit it.


It turned out to be a nightclub complex that had been, as they say, "plastické" - blown up with plastic explosive.

Banks and government offices also get "plasticked", as do businesses that refuse to pay money to protection rackets.

Indeed, a few days after that first bomb in Ile Rousse, we were woken by another explosion. This time, a furniture shop had gone up in flames.

Under the plane trees in a mountain village above the resort, I found myself talking to an old man. He grew up in this village, at a time when children ran barefoot, the only means of transport was the mule, and no-one spoke French.

Yvan Colonna
Corsicans suspect police must have known Yvan Colonna's whereabouts

Corsicans are cagey about discussing the politics of their island with strangers. But the man eventually told me he agreed with blowing up inappropriate tourist developments.

He admitted sadly, though, that the independence movement had degenerated into in-fighting, and that many bombings were insurance scams.

It angers him that such criminality gives credence to the cliché of Corsicans as a bunch of macho brigands. But despite it all, he insists that Corsicans will never allow themselves to become, merely, French citizens.

Which brings us back to last Sunday's referendum.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the French minister of the interior, is an ambitious contender for the presidency. He wanted to be seen to be doing something about the most intractable problem in French domestic politics.

But he had to placate all those who are bitterly opposed to rewarding Corsican terrorism with the plum prize of autonomy.

Mr Sarkozy's response was a referendum so abstruse and vague it managed to please neither the separatists, nor the island's traditionally cautious electorate.

Up in flames

It was ironic that, as Corsicans tried - and failed - to get passionate about a referendum, four men of intense political passion were being tried 1,000 kilometres away in Paris for the murder, five years ago, of the Corsican prefect.

Then, barely 48 hours before the vote, Yvan Colonna, the principal suspect in the murder case, long at large in the Corsican mountains, was suddenly captured.

Many Corsicans suspected the police must have known Colonna's whereabouts for some time - that arresting him now was an outrageous piece of political theatre.

After two days of excited and, it must be said, not always coherent debate, voters rejected the government's proposals, by just 51% to 49%. Driving home the message, four holiday homes belonging to non-Corsicans went up in flames that night.

So, for now, all hopes that limited autonomy would silence the independence movement have gone out the window.

Turbulent Corsica remains a thorn in the flesh of France's political elite. And the evening scent of Mediterranean pine will occasionally be mixed with the smell of plastic explosive.

Corsicans reject autonomy offer
06 Jul 03  |  Europe
Corsica seeks stake in future
05 Jul 03  |  Europe
The Corsican conundrum
09 Jul 99  |  Europe
Corsica's top official killed
06 Feb 98  |  Europe
Profile: Corsica
28 Jun 03  |  Country profiles

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