Is Corsica Burning?

photo: bistrot le pierrot

For once, a bistrot named 'Le Pierrot.'

Arson On the Beach

Paris:- Sunday, 9. May 1999:- France's 'Corsica Problem' has always been a mystery to me, and since it concerns internal French affairs, I have never reported about events on the island. As many of these seem to be criminal in nature, they usually fall within the 'Faits Divers' sector and I don't report many of these either.

A few weeks ago, a fairly typical event of a torched illegal beach café, the Chez Francis, turned weird.

The 'paillote' - straw hut - in the Cala d'Orzu on the Golfe d'Ajaccio was destroyed in the night of 19-20. April. When investigators arrived at the scene they found ski-masks, three empty jerrycans and a walkie-talkie.

During the same night, a gendarme of the island's special security GPS unit, showed up at a local hospital with burns his hands. By morning, this gendarme and two others - who said they were on a stakeout at the Chez Francis - were being questioned by investigative magistrates.

This special 95-man strong GPS unit of gendarmes was installed on Corsica about a year ago, after the murder of the island's Préfet, Claude Erignac, on 6. February 1998.

The Interior Ministry appoints Prefects, which are like administrative governors, and they have enormous powers. Corsica also has its own elected Territorial Assembly, but does not control the National Gendarmes, who act on the orders of the Prefect who in turn is under the command of the Minister of the Interior.

A week ago there were 'strong suspicions, but no proof' of the gendarmes' complicity with the arson. As of Friday, 9. May, the Prefect of Corsica, Bernard Bonnet and his principal lieutenant, Colonel Henri Mazères, are sitting in the Santé prison with the two other gendarmes who were at the scene of the fire. Gérard Pardini, director of the Prefet's office, is locked up in the Fresnes prison near Paris.

Much has come to light on account of the island's number two gendarme, Lieutenant-Colonel Bertrand Cavallier, who warned the Prefect against the arson before it happened and had a hidden tape-recorder with him at an interview after it happened.

In Paris, the affair grabbed the attention of the government and the National Assembly, as well the opposition, ofphoto: picotti picotta glaces course. The Minister of the Interior, Jean-Pierre Chevènement is the boss of the military-like National Gendarmes, and he ordered that 'law and order' be instituted in Corsica; after the murder of the previous Prefect.

Not a Corsican ice cream stand; not made of straw - yesterday.

The opposition reminded him of statements he made at the time, but conveniently forgot that Pierre Chevènement is lucky to be alive at all, much less in office, after suffering from a near-fatal coma last summer.

Meanwhile there is always Corsica. A successful rebellion was lead by Pasquale Paoli against the island's rulers in Genoa. His rag-tag army beat off Genoese attempts to retake the island for 12 years.

At the same time he tried to unify an island nation of shepherds, goatherds and bandits; building schools and a university. He also tried, without much success, to replace the traditional vendetta form of settling personal disputes, with law.

In May 1768, Genoa got tired of Corsica and sold its 'rights' to the island to Louis XV, who sent troops to take possession. The Corsicans held out for a year before their resistance was crushed.

Three months later, on 15. August 1769, Napoleone Buonaparte was born, the son of one of Paoli's chief lieutenants. While a youth, and even after getting a French education and a military appointment on the mainland, he remained a Corsican nationalist at heart. Later, for history, he claimed to have been raised in Champagne.

The island's reality is like other countries' epic fiction. For 20 centuries its people have defended it against Romans, Goths, Moors, Pisans, the Genoese, and finally, the French.

A quote from yesterday's Le Parisien: "In Corsica, as soon as you touch anything to do with the shore, it's dynamite." The illegal restaurants - the paillots - 'cause jealousy and in Corsica, everything built on sand and made of straw, burns easily.'

Until the destruction of the café Chez Francis and the earlier arson of the Aria Maria on 7. March, the gendarmes from France had destroyed a dozen other 'gypsy' beach restaurants without permits - all done with proper administrative permission an thus perfectly legally.

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