Jospin feels the heat from Corsican fire-bombing

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THE FRENCH Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, faced the most serious crisis of his two years in office yesterday after a seemingly absurd incident on a Corsican beach exploded - almost literally - in his face.

The Prefect of Corsica, the most senior national official on the island and a man who reported directly to Mr Jospin's office, was arrested for alleged-ly ordering the fire-bombing last month of a straw-hut restaurant on one of the island's most popular beaches.

The arrest followed the admission by three senior gendarmerie officers - members of an elite anti-terrorist force reporting to the Prefect - that they fire-bombed the restaurant on the insistence of "superiors". Another senior gendarmerie officer told investigators the order came from the Prefect.

The motive for this bizarre act of official arson remains obscure. It appears to have been connected with a turf war on the island between elements of the gendarmerie and the police. However, this quarrel was itself connected with, and complicated by, the suspicions of the Socialist-led Jospin government that both the island police and the French equivalent of MI5 had byzantine connections with extremist Corsican nationalists, the island's crime syndicates and figures in the French centre-right.

The Prefect, Bernard Bonnet, was appointed to restore "the rule of law" on the island after his predecessor was murdered in the streets of the capital, Ajaccio, last year. He was seen as "Jospin's man" in Corsica and dealt directly with the Prime Minister's office, cutting out even his nominal bosses at the Ministry of the Interior. Hence the serious embarrassment for Mr Jospin. Political opponents were comparing the incident yesterday to the bombing of the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior by French agents in Auckland harbour in 1985.

"Whatever the outcome of this tragi-comic episode, the political price (for Jospin) will be great," the pro-Jospin newspaper Liberation wrote. "The French state has been made to look ridiculous ... and ridicule is rarely pardoned."

Faced with hostile questioning in the National Assembly yesterday afternoon, the Prime Minister said that "no political authority of the state ... and no official in my office gave the least order or received the least information" about the raid.

The gendarmerie unit that attacked the Chez Francis restaurant, which was built without planning permission, was set up by Mr Bonnet last year. The four officers under investigation for the attack include the colonel in charge of the gendarmerie on the island, the head of the special unit and two other senior officers. At least three of these officers took part in the fire-bombing. One, a captain, was seriously burnt on the face and hands when the bomb exploded prematurely.

Reversing their original denials, they told the independent investigating judge on Monday that they had burnt the hut, under protest, after "threats" from superiors. Mr Bonnet was then arrested and removed from office.

The restaurant was a favourite of senior police officers, Corsican nationalists and centre-right politicians from the mainland. Its owner, Guy Feraud, was well-connected and was leading a campaign to prevent the destruction of the dozens of illegal beach restaurants on the island.

Mr Bonnet had, by all accounts, made the bulldozing of the restaurants a test-case for his ability to re-impose the will of the French state on the anarchic affairs of Corsica. He had recently been forced to accept - after interference from the internal French security service, the Renseignements Generaux - that Chez Francis could remain for one more season.

A gendarmerie Lieutenant-Colonel, who told investigating judges on Monday that Mr Bonnet was behind the fire, reportedly said that the Prefect had become obsessed with the case.

What remains unclear is why a man previously regarded as an upright servant of the state would resort to breaking the law as a blow against lawlessness. Perhaps the answer can be found in the words attributed to the island's public prosecutor, Jacques Dallest, when he arrested the Prefect on Monday night. "La Corse rend fou. (Corsica drives people crazy)."