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France: Corsica Problem Turns Violent

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 10 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The murder four days ago (Feb. 6) of Corsica's top French government administrator has shocked both islanders and mainlanders, all of whom have been hit with the most painful evidence yet in more than 20 years of separatist militancy that France's long-time Corsica problem will not just fade away.

Today, the Mediterranean island's 260,000 people remained in shock, mourning murdered Corsican Prefect Claude Erignac with a 15-minute period of complete silence and inactivity this morning. In the afternoon, both conservative President Jacques Chirac and Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin were due to attend a state memorial service on the island for Erignac, who will be buried today in his native mainland town in the presence only of his family and close friends.

On his way to a concert Friday evening, Erignac was gunned down by four bullets to the back of his neck while walking in a crowded street of Corsica's southwestern port town of Ajaccio, the seat of his Prefecture. During his two years on the island, a region known for its violence, he had consistently refused to be accompanied in public by bodyguards. He was married and had two children.

Yesterday (Feb. 9) responsibility for the murder was claimed by a so-far unknown and untitled group of Corsican separatists. They authenticated their role by providing the serial number of the revolver that killed Erignac, and was apparently left behind deliberately. In a three-page typewritten communiqu sent to local newspapers, the group called the murder "perfectly thought-out and highly political." They said Erignac had been killed because he had carried out what they called a colonial policy "with a human face" and done harm to Corsican agriculture and forestry by trying to develop tourism on the southern part of the island.

Erignac's murder was widely regarded as Corsica's worst act of political violence since separatist actions began with a wave of bombings across the island in the Spring of 1976. President Chirac called it, in his words, "a barbaric act of extreme gravity without precedent in our history." Prime Minister Jospin, who flew to the island on Saturday, promised prompt punishment for those who either inspired or carried out the killing.

Corsica, whose best-known son is Napoleon Bonaparte, was ceded to France in 1769 --the year of Bonaparte's birth-- by the then city-state of Genoa. Most of its residents today speak not only French, but a Corsican dialect more akin to Italian as spoken in Tuscany than to French, even the French spoken in Marseilles.

Known in French as the "ile de beaute" for its rugged mountainous beauty, the island has --at least in the past quarter-of-century-- clearly cost the French more than they gained from it. Today, Corsica is the most heavily subsidized French region --nearly $4,000 per person in annual aid-- and the one that pays back the least in direct taxes. Per capita income is well less than a third of the national average. Most of it comes from fishing, vineyards, citrus fruits --and growing tourism, which has attracted not only French but many other Europeans.

The past two decades of separatist militarism has been marked not only by violence but also by fratricidal conflicts among the separatists and their numerous splinter groups. Until Erignac's killing, the most spectacular separatist action taken was not on the island itself but in the southwestern French port of Bordeaux. There, just 16 months ago, a powerful bomb wrecked much of the historic offices of then conservative Prime Minister Alain Juppe, who is also Bordeaux's mayor. Those responsible for the action, and for much other Corsican violence, have never been apprehended.

In no small part, that's because many Corsicans observe what the Italian Mafia calls "omerta," a vow of silence about criminal activity. Much of Corsican life is built upon internal clan relations, which makes the island's society far from a civil one. Some even believe the island is largely run by the Mafia, including Nicolas Sarkozy, the number-two man in France's largest conservative party (RPR, for the neo-Gaullist Rally for the Republic). Before the murderers' public communiqu, Sarkozy said it is well known, in his words, that "Corsica is now in the hands of the Mafia who kill...not for great causes or autonomy, but for money."

That is probably too pat and simple an explanation for separatist extremism, which certainly has a strong political character but is otherwise largely inscrutable. What is sure, however, is that Corsicans have been extremely loathe to cooperate with France's central government is tracking down those responsible for almost a quarter-of-a-century of violence.

Understandably, some French politicians have now lost their patience. Former conservative prime minister Raymond Barre told Corsicans during a television interview (Feb. 8): Either you cooperate with the authorities, "or you take destiny in your own hands." In other words, either the Corsicans begin to act like real citizens of the republic, or they will face the threat of France reducing its support --and perhaps even cutting the island loose.