August 28, 1996, Wednesday, INTERNATIONAL EDITION
BYLINE: Tom Squitieri
SECTION: NEWS; Pg. 1A
LENGTH: 1620 words
DATELINE: PONTE VECCHIO, Corsica
PONTE VECCHIO, Corsica — Francois Santoni, the boss of bosses on this Mediterranean island, is in a particularly foul mood this blistering hot morning. It’s not just because France has rejected his latest proposals to make Corsica independent.
His beefy bodyguard is sauntering away to flirt with a young woman at the bar. The waiter is rejecting his 500-French-franc note as too large to pay for his espresso. But mostly he is angry because the management of the establishment is not playing his favorite song, My Way, sung in the Corsican dialect.
How does an irritated warlord calm down? In Corsica he boasts about how he will outmaneuver rivals, then pontificates on how wonderful the independent Corsica he creates will be.
“The object is not to kill everybody. I don’t see myself as an angel, but I am convinced I am on the right side,” says the leader of the largest — and best armed — separatist group in Corsica.
A truce in Corsica’s fighting ended Aug. 22, and Santoni and others are again turning independence into a booming business. Theirs is not the only ethnic area stirring in Europe. Independence movements have popped up across Europe like a case
of measles: Corsicans and Bretons in France; Basques, Catalans and Canary Islanders in Spain; Welsh, Scots and Irish in the United Kingdom; Germans in northern Italy and the Czech Republic; Flemish and Walloons in Belgium; Sardinians, Sicilians and wealthy Italians in Italy.
The potential consequences of these independence movements go far beyond spoiling vacation plans for some Americans and Europeans.
“History teaches us a very important lesson,” says Wolfgang Reinicke, a senior European analyst at Brookings Institution. ”We have to be most aware of the consequences of nationalism
after the Balkans.”
None of the current struggles for independence or autonomy has been on the massive scale of the wars that raged in the Balkan nations of Bosnia and Croatia, leaving hundreds of thousands dead and wounded and the countries ruined.
But it was the success of ethnic groups in the former Yugoslavia– the Croats and Slovenes in getting their own countries in 1991, the Bosnian Serbs in getting a de facto nation this year– that has inspired other groups.
“That sent a signal that it is OK to organize (new) modern states,” said Charles Kupchan, author of the 1995 book Nationalism and Nationalities in the New Europe. “These movements could destabilize
the region and make things more complicated.”
Events this summer in Europe’s pockets of ethnic unhappiness have underscored the delicacy and difficulty of finding solutions agreeable both to those in power and those wanting power:
– In Spain’s Basque region, a truce ended July 1 with the Spanish government acceding to separatists’ demand to relocate some of the groups’ nearly 500 jailed members closer to the Basque region. Three days later, Basque separatists relaunched their war by exploding grenades at a police barracks and rejecting new peace conditions.
– Italian secessionists wanting to jettison the poor, southern regions of Italy have increased the size and number of their rallies. The most fanatical call themselves the “Green Shirts” and follow bullyboy tactics last used by the Blacks Shirts loyal to fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. They plan to declare independence on
– Peace talks began in Northern Ireland on June 10. But the Irish Republican Army refuses to declare a new cease-fire and set off its latest bomb on June 15 in Manchester, England.
Meanwhile, there was renewed violence in Northern Ireland as Catholics and Protestants held traditional summer marches.
Here on Corsica, the independence efforts had been a low-key war of nighttime bombings of empty buildings and the painting of nationalist slogans on road signs.
But on July 1 a massive car bomb exploded in the northeastern city of Bastia, killing one Corsican nationalist and wounding two others. Another 10 people were hurt, including, for the first time, tourists.
The bomb was triggered by a remote-control device and was designed to kill Charles Pieri, Santoni’s deputy and chief enforcer. Pieri was severely wounded.
A week earlier, eating a seafood salad at a restaurant next to where the bomb exploded, Pieri, 46, had boasted to USA TODAY that no one would dare attack him or anyone else in Santoni’s organization.
“They will never touch me. In one year we shall be the only ones left.”
The bold attack on Pieri was the first in daylight, in a populated area or using a remote-controlled device.
It ensured that his boss, Santoni, and rival leaders would continue to orchestrate their attacks from the safety of mountain lairs.
The attack on Pieri was a direct result of the French government’s divide-and-conquer strategy aimed at breaking up the independence effort by turning the groups against each other.
Today there are four major factions battling for power, continuing the island’s long tradition of vendetta:
– Santoni’s Cuncolta party.
– The Accolta Naziunali Corsa (ANC) party headed by Petru Poggioli.
– The Movement for Self-Determination (MPA), headed by Alain Orsini.
– Corsica Viva, headed by Bernard Pantalacci.
Said to be the only Corsican word to become part of the English language, vendetta, translates into “blood feuds.”
Two bombs exploded Monday in Bonifacio and Figari. No one was hurt.
Poggioli, 46, who heads one group, took bullets in the leg and shoulder in 1993. Santoni escaped a spraying of bullets in 1995. Orsini’s car was riddled with 96 bullets after the attack on Santoni. Pantalacci, 44, did jail time for a raid he led that killed another political opponent.
Ironically, all the current nationalist leaders were allies during the 1960s and ’70s. Dust-covered photographs show them with arms draped around each others’ shoulders.
“We all used to eat together, drink together, make love together,” says Maria Ellen Mattei, 40, who has deep nationalist credentials: Her father was a nationalist leader after World War II.
As a lawyer for 17 years, she helped defend Pieri and others on murder charges.
She is a leader in Santoni’s Cuncolta party and his current girlfriend. Before that she was in Orsini’s party and was his girlfriend.
“The only way Paris is listening to us is to use violence,” she says. “What we want to do is establish a balance of power.”
One-time friend, lawyer Marie Josphin Bellagamba, remembers when all the separatists were working for a Corsica that would have land reform, environmental safeguards and a new class of political leftists.
Now she crosses the street when she sees Mattei, Pieri and other former allies coming.
“All they want is power; they don’t care about Corsica,” Bellagamba, 39, says. “The only way is to choose open democratic actions and give up on the armed struggle. They did the opposite.”
The armed struggle against France has left Corsica battered by 8,400 separatist bombings over the last 20 years, including 602 in 1995. Forty-four bombs went off the first two weeks of 1996 before the now-ended truce was called.
The toll of the past 20 years exceeds 100. Another 14 people have been slain this year.
Tourism, down 2% in 1995, continues to suffer. Businesses anticipate a 15% drop this year from last year’s low numbers.
“1996 is a black year. Corsica is going to be increasingly boycotted as a holiday destination after this sort of action,” laments Gilbert Casanova, chairman of the chamber of commerce in Ajaccio, the island’s capital.
French subsidies to the island amount to $ 5,000 a year for each of the island’s 250,000 people. The economic burden, coupled with the violence, is exasperating many.
“If the Corsicans want independence, let them have it,” Raymond Barre, a former French prime minister, snarled in the legislature in May.
It is easy to see why Corsica is worth fighting for:
– Unspoiled beaches of white sand; clear ocean water.
– Twisting roads leading to jagged mountains.
– Wildernesses of pink roses; orange, pine, cork, fig, beech, eucalyptus, olive and lemon trees; bougainvillea; and russet-toned wildflowers.
– Wild boar roaming the island, feeding on chestnuts and mint, which gives their meat a unique taste.
– Choral chants coming out of mountain churches.
– The scent of mussels steamed in herbs and wines.
Corsicans complain that French government policies have left the island economically dependent on mainland France. While the French have permitted a Corsican-language college to reopen, Corsicans feel their history, culture and language have been suppressed by French officials.
Unlike other European ethnic groups seeking more autonomy, Corsica is an island and had been independent several times before.
The French government has no desire to let Corsica go. It proposes instead making the island a special tax-free zone.
That was rejected by the European Union, the organization that sets economic guidelines for some European nations. But such pan-Europeanism may be precisely what brings Corsican and other nationalists the autonomy they seek.
“If state borders are no longer of principal importance, if one is looking at a Europewide area, then why not have a Europe of regions rather than a Europe of states,” says Cynthia Irvin, University of Kentucky political science professor.
“The less important frontier borders become, there is less reason for these groups to feel constrained by borders.”