Where nationalism is a blast Corsica: The island nation has been waging a movement to obtain autonomy from France, but its bizarre way of trying to achieve it has vexed the French.


AJACCIO, Corsica -- When French Prime Minister Alain Juppe's mayoral office in Bordeaux was blown up last month, the first thought was: Corsican separatists. Corsicans are always blowing up something.

But this is an odd independence movement; it doesn't quite want independence from France but something vaguer called "autonomy" -- as in "I'm running away from home. Can I have the keys to the car?"

Two decades after the birth of modern Corsican nationalism, a genuine movement has degenerated into infighting over power and money.

Meanwhile, attacks on the French continue -- 700 in the past year, many of them bombings. Bombing is customary in Corsica, a form of communication with more impact than a fax.

But this is not Hamas, the IRA, the Tamil Tigers. There are no dead, no injured from Corsican bombings against the French state. When Corsicans kill, they mostly kill each other. Corsicans invented, or at least perfected, the vendetta.

When they bomb, they bomb at night, and no one gets hurt. A French-owned villa is destroyed, or the beginnings of a high-rise hotel. A post office is gutted. No one knows who did it, but, of course, everyone knows who did it, including the police.

This gets tedious, especially for the postmaster in Bonifacio, who has to work out of the basement. The average Corsican is sick of it, but there is a code of silence.

The French are vexed. They subsidize Corsica at the rate of about $1.4 billion a year. They offer incentives for investment; a Free Trade Zone eliminating the payroll tax goes into effect in January. And, it is said, they pay off, directly or indirectly, some of the nationalists.

The separatist movement is now so fragmented that the French government couldn't satisfy them all -- four main groups, the most powerful being the "Historic Wing" of the FLNC (Corsican National Liberation Front).

The attacks continue, and they're hitting the mainland, too -- Aix-en-Provence in September and November, Nimes and Juppe's Bordeaux office in October, Limoges and Marseille in November. As they say on the island, if the bomb is plastique, it's Corsican.

French people find this behavior bizarre. You have mountains, beaches, unspoiled inland villages with granite houses; cows, dogs and pigs wandering the roads. You can drink the water, the air, the wine. The food is good, even if it isn't exactly French. But the only major industry is tourism, and "Come to Corsica for the Bombings" is not a winning slogan. Corsica has limited resources and a small population (250,000). If it cannot support itself, what's the point of a liberation movement, especially one that kills the golden goose?

The official line -- "France does not deal with terrorists" -- was recently undercut by an extraordinary newspaper interview with Francois Santoni, leader of the Cuncolta, the political arm of the FLNC's self-described historic wing. From a hide-out in southern Corsica, where he was a fugitive on a gun conviction, Santoni said he had talks with members of the prime minister's staff, even in Paris.

But Santoni gave himself up to police Monday, a few days after a bomb exploded at a golf course. The FLNC had claimed responsibility for the bombing, accusing the golf course owners of letting French commandos use the building. The owners filed a legal complaint, saying they had been asked for money in a Mafia-style, cash-for-protection racket.

In the south Corsican capital Ajaccio, the government must maintain the fiction that Corsica is just another part of France. Even though Corsicans have their own culture and a language that sounds suspiciously like Italian, they can't have recognition as a distinct people. France has only French people.

The government emphatically rejects the use of force, but by attacking French property rather than French people, the nationalists have arrived at an almost acceptable level of violence. For a serious attempt to stop the bombings, France would pay a high price -- it would appear to be an occupying power. French policy seems to be: Keep the lid on, make the occasional arrest. (And if nationalists want to hurt each other, let them.)

In Corte, the 18th-century capital of a (briefly) independent Corsica and now a center of nationalism, Marcel Simeoni describes himself as a small businessman -- his medical lab has three employees -- and a "volunteer" for the Cuncolta.

A recent poll showed 91 percent opposed to independence. Corsicans don't want it, Simeoni says, because they know it isn't feasible. Besides, what does independence mean in modern Europe? And he says the failure of nationalist candidates at the ++ polls is a verdict on separatist violence, not ideas.

How does the FLNC get its money? From Corsicans overseas? No. From bank robberies? Not anymore. From a "revolutionary tax?" Yes, unfortunately. Simeoni is talking about a kind of extortion.

Is there competition among the various groups so that if one blows up something, another blows up something? Yes. But the disagreements, Simeoni says, are over cash and power, not ideology. And because of the nationalist movement, there are teen-agers with know-how and access to explosives. Sometimes, they free-lance.

The Communist mayor of Sartene, Dominique Bucchini, seems to be the most respected politician on the island, and his solutions are economic: Corsica's natural trading partners, he says, are the Italian island of Sardinia, Sicily, mainland Italy and North Africa; the French government should help foster those connections, he says. And instead of developing the island by exporting mainland industries, France should encourage new, more appropriate home-grown Corsican enterprises -- high-tech, nonpolluting.

This would leave the land and the beauty intact but provide work for young men who might otherwise have these choices: being unemployed or underemployed, going abroad, joining the nationalists. Bucchini is asking for the government to act generously.

For Pascal Irastorza, a journalist with the Parisian right-of-center magazine Le Point, there is no Corsican liberation movement, only a Corsican extortion movement. Its leaders are killers who are getting rich without working by diverting French subsidies, by racketeering. "They have no dream for the island, no goals for the island," he says. But when "a kid joins the nationalists, he's given a mask, gun, money, and he becomes the big man."

Unlike the IRA, says Irastorza, there are no distinct military and political wings of the FLNC. When its members take off their masks, they become the political wing -- the Cuncolta. Saves personnel.

The modern nationalist movement, he says, was formed in response to a simple reality: Fifteen clan leaders controlled Corsica. There was no work, and no room for anyone else to grow.

To prosper, Irastorza says, Corsicans must accept mass tourism; he means high-rises. But Corsicans know what they have, love what they have. They don't want to be the next Cote d'Azur, accepting unbridled development as the price for a sustainable economy.

But what most Corsicans expect is more of the same: France will keep pouring in money that doesn't build anything; nationalists will keep bombing. It's pointless, it's endless, it's Corsica. When a radical fringe of the FLNC ended its "truce" last month, the universal reaction was: How could you tell?

Pub Date: 12/21/96

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