War is brewing in this French region over what it means to be a Corsican

February 23, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Staff Writer

AJACCIO, Corsica -- People in this land of the mountain bandit and vendetta, the sinister isle that gave the world Napoleon Bonaparte, do not readily embrace new ideas. But when they do, they give an iron loyalty.

Consider Pasquale di Paoli. In the mountain town of Corte in 1755, 20 years before the Revolutionary War, Paoli declared to the world that not only was Corsica an independent nation, but that it was a constitutional democracy.

The world did not hear him.

But the monarchs of Europe felt a chill from the storm brewing in America and France that eventually would blow most of them away. France sent an army and threw Paoli out of his own country -- thus, democracy, born in Greece, murdered in Rome, was reborn briefly in the Mediterranean backwater of Corsica.

The passion of his idea survives.

A war is being fought in this poorest of the French regions, a low-level war involving bombs and occasionally bullets.

One day last month, a bomb destroyed a tourist office here. A month earlier, 50 empty bungalows were blown up. This has been going on for almost two decades.

Who are these people who dynamite empty buildings? Make war on architecture?

They are the National Front for the Liberation of Corsica, the extremist expression of Paoli's legacy.

They militate on behalf of the 10 percent of the island's 245,000 people who want separation from France. Because their policy is not to kill (a policy on occasion violated), they are tolerated by most Corsicans and not zealously pursued by the authorities.

Why do they go on? How do they survive?

"I think they are crazy," Francois Giacobbi said. "They continue for nothing. They've lasted 17 years. Where are they now?"

Mr. Giacobbi is an expansive 73-year-old with flowing white hair and an infectious, gaptoothed smile of immense candlepower that he rarely turns off. He lives in Bastia, on the northeast coast. As president of the General Council for Upper Corsica, he is the political leader in that half of the island.

He said they survive, first, because "they destroy only houses or restaurants. They don't try to kill people."

"Second, they are mixed up with the Mafia," Mr. Giacobbi said, rubbing two fingers together, indicating someone on the take. "We often don't know when there is an attack whether it was political or criminal."

The NFLC emerged in 1974 with a hostage-taking in Algeria. It was the first violent flash. It followed a long period of seething Corsican resentment against French Algerians, refugees from France's colonial war, planted here by the government in the 1960s.

Another motive for its violence was to discourage the then-incipient tourism industry, financed by non-Corsicans. Again, the nationalist impulse was evident.

Tourism today gives Corsicans seasonal employment, though not enough. The jobless rate of 12 percent to 15 percent is higher than France's national average. About 2 million people visit in July and August to enjoy the beaches and the wild interior. Most Corsicans not involved in tourism work for the government.

The smells of Corsica

It is a splendid place for tourism. And the hotter war brewing might be over the question of what it means, in the end, to be a Corsican.

The smell of turpentine rises from Ajaccio's harbor. The fishermen painting their boats prefer strong colors; blues are favored. The boats are old and lumpy with the paint.

Smells are important to Corsicans. Blanche Antona remembers: "I was a student in Paris, and at 20 I wanted to stay in Paris. As I got older, I remembered the smells of the island and the light on the mountains, but mainly the smells."

So to be sheltered by the palms, to have the sea before her and the mountains at her back, she came home about 12 years ago.

The smell that brought her back, and for which the island is most noted, is of the maquis, the dense mat of "arbutus, cistus, myrtle, rosemary, lavender and thyme" that covers the skirts of the mountains. It is embedded in every Corsican's mind and beckons him home until the day he dies.

Napoleon, captive on St. Helena, spoke of it longingly, although he did not usually make nostalgic references to the island of his birth.

But the maquis is for the spring. In February, the smell is vapors of drying paint drifting through Ajaccio's thread-thin streets, rising into the windows and seasoning the lives of the people who live in the ocher- and rust-colored dwellings by the port.

Ms. Antona never regretted coming back. She went to work as a political aide in the Corsican assembly. She smiles, eager to correct false impressions of the island.

"It is tranquil here," she said. "When we are in Paris and read the papers, there is the impression of a war. But the people are tranquil, you can see."

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