"One Island, Two Stories"

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THOMAS SANCTON CargèseIt's too early to talk about a breakthrough, but there was a flicker of hope last week that a quarter-century cycle of Corsican violence might soon come to an end. At an unprecedented meeting in Paris, French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin huddled with 28 elected Corsican officials-- including representatives of two hardcore nationalist groups--to lay the groundwork for a negotiated settlement. Clearly inspired by the Northern Ireland peace process, Jospin told the group that it was time to put an end to Corsica's "malaise" and "unblock the situation through dialogue."

Jospin deftly put the ball in the Corsicans' court, telling them to come back in February or March with specific proposals for institutional, economic and cultural reforms. Though pro-French Corsicans dominated the delegation, even the two nationalists joined them in hailing Jospin's overture. Meanwhile, a communique from the main wing of the F.L.N.C. guerrilla group promised a "historic initiative" that could refer to a forthcoming cease-fire.

Not everyone was delighted with Jospin's gesture, which went back on an earlier pledge not to open talks until the nationalists renounced violence. Critics wondered how far the unitary French Republic could go in extending the local autonomy that the island has enjoyed since 1991, when it was granted its own assembly and executive. "The nationalist parties only get about 15% of the vote, and even they don't want complete independence," says Corsican-born journalist Charles Lambroschini. "What they want is a divorce with alimony--they make the decisions and the French continue to pay."

Corsica has been a challenge to French authority ever since the ruggedly beautiful Mediterranean isle was wrested from Genoa's control and annexed to France in 1769--the same year Napoleon was born in Ajaccio. The modern-day troubles began in 1975 when nationalists attacked the vineyards of French Algerian immigrants. Since then, the island has been rocked by hundreds of bombings, dozens of assassinations--often among the numerous rival groups--and shakedowns for "revolutionary taxes." More often than not, the patriotic rhetoric has been a smoke screen for organized crime and racketeering.

Over the years, the French state has responded with a mixture of financial largesse--the islanders receive some $1,900 per capita in aid each year--and a largely rhetorical insistence on law and order. The audacity of the separatists reached its apogee in February 1998 with the assassination of Prefect Claude Erignac, France's highest-ranking island official. His successor, Bernard Bonnet, spearheaded a crackdown that put a lid on crime and political violence and ultimately identified Erignac's assassins. But infighting among security forces allowed the presumed gunman to flee, while Bonnet himself is now out of a job--and under investigation--for allegedly ordering the torching of an illegal beachfront restaurant. Violence flared anew with the daytime bombings last month of two French administrative buildings whose occupants were saved by a last-minute warning. It was those attacks that prompted Jospin to invite Corsican leaders to Paris.

All this takes on a different perspective when viewed from Cargèse, a picturesque village of 900 souls nestled on a granite headland overlooking the Mediterranean. Once a quiet hamlet that lived on subsistence agriculture, Cargèse--like the rest of Corsica--now depends heavily on tourism. "We used to have a simple, pastoral life," says Jean Zanetacci, 80, a local butcher who was mayor of Cargèse for 30 years. "But we can't live like we did 40 years ago. Like it or not, tourism is our future."

Some Cargesians did not like it. For along with the seasonal tourists who started flocking here after the war came wealthy French "continentals" and other foreigners who bought up beachfront properties and--according to some disgruntled locals--threatened the "Corsican way of life." "The nationalists sent anonymous letters to all the continentals warning us not to vote," says a French woman who has lived in Cargèse since 1976. "Those who disobeyed got their houses machine-gunned--or worse." Anti-foreigner violence in Cargèse reached a peak in the mid-'80s when some 25 villas were bombed. "Sure, we had troubles here," says Zanetacci, "but Cargèe is not a hotbed of nationalism. They're just a handful of people--it's the same all over Corsica."

Monsignor Florent Marchiano, 61, arrived in Cargèse from Italy 35 years ago. Since 1968, he has been saying Mass in both the Greek and Roman Catholic churches that form the town's most visible landmarks. Just as his dual ministry embodies the spirit of religious tolerance, he is a calm voice of reason in the maelstrom of Corsica's political passions.

"Corsicans are an insular people in search of themselves," he says. "Their trouble comes from a reawakening of ethnic identity, which opens the door to totalitarianism. A community that enfolds itself in its own identity will ultimately smother to death." He sees some hope in the nascent talks but fears a possible backlash if the nationalists' demands are spurned. The vast majority of Corsicans, says Marchiano, are peaceful and pro-French, "but people here are afraid to say what they think. There is no freedom of expression."

Ex-mayor Zanetacci, for one, is not afraid to speak his mind. "Did you see the monument to our war dead in the center of Cargèse? There are 200 names on it. Do you know what those men died for? For France! You think we can forget that? Independence is out of the question. Maybe some sort of regional autonomy, but how far can it go?"

To the town's most infamous son, Yvan Colonna, full independence was the only answer. Colonna, 39, Prefect Erignac's presumed assassin, fled to the mountains last May as the police were closing in. Along with his brother Stephane and a fellow Cargesian, Pierre Alessandri-- currently in jail in connection with the Erignac plot--Colonna was part of a hardcore local group linked to a larger nationalist network.

The son of a local politician, former Socialist deputy Jean-Hugues Colonna, Yvan dropped out of university in his early 20s and took to the hills as a goat farmer. "We all knew he was a nationalist," says an employee of the local tourist office. "But Yvan was respected. He was discreet. He was a hard worker who got up at 4 a.m. to milk his goats. And he made an excellent Broccio cheese." To some villagers, at least, he remains a local hero: witness the Corsican-language graffiti around the village proclaiming "Gloria a te Yvan" (Glory to you, Yvan). Colonna's father refuses to be interviewed, but another close relative aggressively defends the fugitive. "Yvan is no angel, but he's fundamentally honest," she says. "He's a rebel against injustice. If he were in America, he would fight for all the disinherited minorities--starting with the Indians."

"I can't judge Yvan," says ex-mayor Zanetacci. "He's related to my wife. Like it or not, he and Alessandri are children of Cargèse. They're from old families, there are ties that bind us all. You can't forget that." Asked if Cargesians were protecting Yvan, Zanetacci shrugs and looks out at the sea. "We have a proverb, from the time of the old vendettas: if a man comes in from the maquis and knocks on your door, you give him bread. Whatever he did. I don't know where Yvan is--maybe Spain or Ireland--and I can't tell you how his story will end. But I'd be surprised if they took him alive."