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 and thus perfectly legally.

This weekend, the most recent governor of the island, Bernard Bonnet, is conducting a hunger strike in the Santé prison in Paris' 14th arrondissement. He claims he is the victim of a plot by the media or the Corsican nationalists, and maintains he is innocent.

All of this has created a general uproar in France; and not for the first time over Corsica. This time the situation may have gotten one number too hairy.

(The word 'arson' comes from Norman French.)

Meanwhile: the Language Sandwich

There are supposed to be 75 regional 'languages' spoken within France, so if you have problems with pure French as I do, it might be because you are in the wrong region.

The 'European thing' has its strange pan-European effects and is taking directions to unknown destinations. The other day, France signed an agreement in Budapest, to promote its regional languages.

This is, of course, only symbolic - as well as being against several centuries of attempts tophoto: strike train schedule make France one country - so France also made a declaration that the Budapest deal did not mean Paris is going to automatically recognize and protect minorities.

The French Constitution for example, in its second article, says the 'language of the République is French.' President Jacques Chirac wants the Constitutional Council to clear up this question, and it should hand down a decision in a month.

Paris suburbanites did a lot of this last week.

However, teachers of regional languages say the French Constitution has to give way, or conform to the European. Eight other European countries who have signed the Budapest charter already accept their regional languages; France might ratify the charter next year.

Ratification will mean publishing the texts of French laws in regional languages; but will not mean being able to have your trial for arson conducted in Corsican, for example. The educational system will be able to introduce regional languages to the course structure, and public authorities will be able to use local idioms.

But the barrier is fully and firmly lowered against any sort of liberalization for radio and TV - these remain 'French only,' both public and private.

As a public service, Le Parisien - which is neither a radio or TV station - has published the first phrase of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; in Alsatian, Basque, Catalan, Corsican, Occitan and Provençal. Very neat.

The Strike that Fizzled Out

Whether it was orchestrated or not, TV-news relentlessly showed angry commuters in the Paris region night after night - until the powerful CGT union, whose leaders did not favor the strike in the first place, withdrew its national strike warning for Monday.

By last Friday, most commuter traffic in the Paris area was back to near normal as the militant minority unions caved in and their member train drivers put the wagons on the rails again.

No one will agree with me, but I think the probable cause of the sudden end of the strikephoto: commuters at st lazare was that everybody was anxious to get home on time to see the TV-news at 20:00 and to catch the latest reports about the curious events in Corsica.

These people are not 'waiting for Godot,' they are waiting for a sign of their train.

TV-news kept up its barrage of war news from Korsovo and this was often the evening's lead item, but much of the rest of many broadcasts were given over to exciting and dramatic scenes from the National Assembly, as the government and opposition tried to get the upper hand over an affair that started with a minor arson of an illegal beach café.

Meanwhile, the SNCF says it 'lost' 300 million francs of our money on account of the strike.

Paris Goes Roller Crazy

Last weekend had good weather and on Monday, sportsmen and women of all ages, shapes and sizes, stormed shops selling rollers of every type, to be ready for this weekend, which is turning out to have weather even better. One shop sold 200 pairs on Monday alone.

I accidently caught a poster for this weekend's roller derby in Versailles - without realizing it involved a marathon run from Montparnasse to the château.

Completely unknown to me until I saw it on tonight's TV-news, was another marathon from the Jardin d'Acclimatation in Paris, through the Val d'Oise, to the freight zone 2 at Charles-de-Gaulle airport. Is this 'sports news?' Is the 'entertainment' news? Is this 'craze' news?

You'll know it's the latter if you write to ask what people are wearing in Paris these days and I reply, 'Rollers!'

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