WORLD

A sinister Isle of Beauty

October 24 1983
WORLD

A sinister Isle of Beauty

October 24 1983

A sinister Isle of Beauty

CORSICA

At first glance, the small French island of Corsica resembles an untroubled postcard cliché— mountains heaving up out of the unsullied Mediterranean blue, beaches fringed with lavender and palms, and villages of ancient tile-roofed stone buildings where holidayers linger over their evening Pastis breathing the aromas of wild rosemary and thyme. As Napoleon, the island’s most famous son, once put it: “With my eyes closed, I would recognize Corsica by its perfume alone.” But this summer and fall, the 183-km Mediterranean sea stronghold of rock and pride that the French dubbed the Isle of Beauty has been haunted by a more sinister smell: the palpable scent of fear as a new wave of separatist bombings paralysed the vital tourist industry and revealed unsavory links between the Corsican independence movement and the local Mafia. In the process, the Corsican National Liberation Army, a new break-away group of hardcore militants, has emerged. Bent on shattering France’s 200-year grip with a stepped-up campaign of violence and intimidation, the group’s actions plunged their uneasy paradise into its most volatile crisis in nearly a decade.

Violence is hardly new to Corsica. For centuries the islanders directed their anger against their Genoese conquerors and their French successors. Now the inhabitants are locked in a series of deadly, generations-old vendettas between the powerful clans that still control much of the political life of its 270,000 citizens. But two years ago, when President François Mitterrand came to power in Paris promising Corsica a new deal, the Corsican National Liberation Front (FLNC) declared a truce in its periodic after-dark bombing sprees which had frayed nerves on the island and in the French capital since 1976.

In a nod of gratitude, the French Socialists sped through a decentralization measure awarding the island its first degree of autonomy—a 61-seat regional assembly with a $20-billion budget that Corsicans elected last year. Although opposed by the clans, whose stranglehold on Paris it intended to break, and by the militant separatists who branded it a collaborationist sham and urged their supporters not to vote, the assembly ballot marked a victory for the legal wing of the autonomist movement, the Corsican People’s Union (UPC), whose seven seats gave the new party the balance of power. At the time,

the French press hailed the vote as a triumph for the forces of moderation led by the UPC chief, Dr. Edmond Simeoni. A dashing and charismatic general practitioner, Simeoni, 49, had renounced violence after spending two years in jail for his alleged 1975 involvement in a hostage-taking incident near Algeria that left two French policemen

dead and marked the birth of current Corsican separatism. But a year after its creation the assembly has turned into an ineffectual debating society whose only action so far has been to freeze construction of a planned nuclear plant, despite the fact that such a veto might not even fall within its jurisdiction.

Last January, just three weeks after the French cabinet had outlawed the FLNC and dispatched the country’s top law-enforcement officer, Commissioner Robert Broussard, to wipe out terrorism

on the island, FLNC terrorists spirited away four local blindfolded journalists to a middle-of-the night press conference in a mountain shack outside the Corsican capital of Ajaccio. There they heard ski-masked terrorists confirm what was already self-evident: the Liberation Front’s honeymoon with Mitterrand was over.

Not only did the incidents signal a new stage in the armed struggle for Corsican independence, but they also exposed the increasingly sinister ties

and tacit territorial standoffs between Corsica’s mobsters and separatists which are tarnishing the nationalists’ image. Indeed, a growing number of reports have underlined the fine line between separatist attacks on the island’s 70,000 mainland residents—known in Corsican as pinsuits—and extortion attempts based on the threat of violence. What has complicated police attempts to clamp down on both groups has been the islanders’ own traditional credo of silence even among those who oppose

terrorism but who fear breaking Corsican solidarity to inform to the foreign authorities. That terror of reprisals has given the separatists passive support among the populace and produced a surreal dialogue from certain bombing victims who simply shrug: “I wouldn’t want to make any complaint,” or “It was my turn.”

But for some Corsicans, the terrorists’ destruction of six dune buggies owned by a Club Méditerranée—the first direct assault on the tourist industry on which the island’s ailing economy depends for one-third of its income—was the most disturbing symbol of the latest escalation of violence. In fact, the separatist movement’s most legitimate grudge is Corsica’s depressed economic situation, which has led some nationalists to compare it to the Third World. Forced to import seven times what it exports, including 95 per cent of its meat, the island suffers from soaring living costs, a virtual absence of industry, declining agriculture and an unemployment rate that is three times the French national average. Desperation has forced most young Corsicans to flee to the mainland in search of work, leaving a predominantly older population and 300 empty villages.

Against that bleak scenario, Corsicans have tolerated as an economic necessity the roughly one million tourists who have been spending one billion francs a year. But this year’s bombings and threats have resulted in a 30-percent drop in reservations, sending local hotel and restaurant owners into a panic. An increasing number of mainlanders whose vacation villas have been bombed are also decamping, pulling the rug out from under the real estate market. As Catherine Bezancon wrote to a Corsican daily after her beloved summer house was destroyed: “We have understood. We won’t rebuild. We won’t come back. It’s the end of 20 years of happiness in Corsica.” Many of the island’s teachers, sent from the mainland, who have recently become the new target of terrorist harassment as symbols of colonial French culture, are now echoing that same theme.

As Mitterrand made clear during his visit, the French have no intention either of getting out or of exhibiting the “least complacency” in the face of increasing violence. But even reformed militants such as Simeoni are now worried that the island’s age-old appetite for blood may ultimately defeat the nationalist cause, turning Corsicans against each other in a savage “internal confrontation.” The rancid odors of fear and distrust are slithering like unwelcome serpents just below the sungilded surface of Napoleon’s perfumed island,