Blast puts Corsica in fear of violence, Sicilian-style

Mary Dejevsky reports on an attack that reveals more than a 'vendetta'
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The Independent Online
Bastia - They named a street after Sicily's assassinated anti- mafia judge, Giovanni Falcone, in this Corsican port at the weekend. In the full glare of the midday sun, with the heat radiating off the white and sandy stone of the new estate and the blue-green sea glistening far below, the mayor of Palermo unveiled the new street sign with a determined swish of southern panache: Rue du Juge Falcone.

It was a simple ceremony, watched by perhaps 150 people and a few dozen more from the windows and balconies of their new flats. There were some well-chosen words from the mayor of Bastia, Emile Zeccarelli, considerably more words from the mayor of Palermo, and a short epilogue from the prefect of northern Corsica, then the anthems of Italy and France, in their longer versions.

But the terrible irony of the ceremony escaped no one, for it came at the end of a week that began with a car-bomb explosion in the very heart of Bastia. It brought home to Corsicans the risk that their island, too, could descend into Sicilian-style lawlessness. The bomb in Bastia had killed one man, Pierre-Louis Lorenzi, a member of the political wing of the biggest Corsican nationalist movement, seriously injured Charles Pieri, the leader of the same group, and hurt another 14 other people who just happened to be in the vicinity.

Apart from the extent of the injuries, what shocked was the fact that the bomb had been timed to go off in broad daylight, in the centre of the city, in full view of everyone. In Corsica, people have grown used to the sort of sporadic violence that lurks in dark corners at night, and can be dismissed as personal vendetta or petty delinquency next day. Bastia's bomb seemed like an open challenge.

In his speech on Saturday, the mayor, who had come straight from an emergency meeting of his left-wing coalition's city councillors, insisted that the only way to fight organised crime and terrorism was through "democratic institutions and legality". The prefect, looking grave and northern, in sombre suit and tie, spoke of the need to foster respect for the law, and stood extra-straight and solemn through the national anthems. The choice of the long forms of the national anthems, - the Marseillaise punctuated with mock-cannon fire - like the proliferation of French and Italian flags, and shiny "Republique Francaise" badges on every lamppost, seemed to say one thing: "The State is still in charge here."

The message from Bastia as a whole, however, is more ambiguous. On the face of it, this city of pastel stone on the island's north-east coast, differs little from any other Mediterranean port except in the luxuriance of its vegetation. The palms and cypresses, pines and chestnuts, enlivened by banks of red and white oleanders, hide all but the tiled roofs of apartment blocks and villas.

There is a working harbour for the giant ferries from Marseilles and Livorno, a recently- built marina, and the old port - ancient focus of the city - with its baroque church of St John the Baptist looking out on the dozens of fishing and sailing boats in the harbour.

For France, though, even for Mediterranean France, Bastia looks not just southern, and not just poor, but misgoverned. There are as many expensive German and Japanese cars as in Paris, but the city itself is clearly failing to thrive.

The picture-pretty old port, surrounded by faded Italianate palazzi and warehouses, would be an asset to any town with ambitions as a tourist centre, but it is decrepit to the point where three bomb-damaged shop- fronts are not immediately apparent. Only the charring and a ragged Corsican flag give away where the bomb exploded. Almost a week later, jagged glass is still uncollected and unreplaced. Letters still lie in the hallway of the shop that served as the offices of Pieri's recently formed security company.

The signs of state power and the resistance to it are everywhere. Entering the city from the north, the first big building, being extended to more than double its present size, is the gendarmerie. Then the town hall, with a high fence, police guards, and tricolour. The prefecture - a big, modern edifice in the new, upper city - has no board outside; its only form of identification is the bus stop outside, labelled "prefecture" in tiny letters. The railings are 10ft high, and spiked; abundant barbed wire fills any gaps.

Down in the older part of town, the central post office is covered in nationalist graffiti, as though it has been abandoned to their cause. Any other blank wall is either covered in "Free Corsica" slogans, or evidence of clumsy recent painting. There are far fewer cash-dispensing machines than there would be in a city of similar size on the mainland, and none on the peninsula north of Bastia. Apparently, they get blown up. The absence of litter-bins is equally telling. In the streets and cafes it is the gruff Italian-sound of the Corsican language that you hear, not French.

Twenty kilometres to the south lies the village of Lucciana, a collection of stone houses and a church perched on a hillside over a ravine. Lucciana's mayor was murdered two years ago, the first - and so far only - elected representative to have been killed in 20 years of violence.

A steep holding wall above the main road is daubed with tributes to the FLNC - the military wing of Pieri and Lorenzi's Conculta movement - and its martyrs. Past the village proper, the road is lined with family vaults, ornate and flower-strewn, behind padlocks and railings.

A little further on, the Lucciana cemetery, clustered round a big, ruined church, is arranged on terraces shaded by cypresses and overlooking the sea. The sickly scent of hundreds of flowers is overpowering. Piled up by a family vault on the left, impossible to miss, are dozens of wreaths, bouquets and plaques, each with a message of condolence. The night shift at the hospital where he died sent a wreath, regretting they could not save him. But in pride of place stands the wreath from the terrorist group, the FLNC.

In Bastia, everyone, from the mayor down, fears a revenge attack for Lorenzi's death, but still, no one seems to know who planted the bomb, or why. For once, though, the authorities are looking beyond the standard explanation - that it's just in the Corsican tradition of vendettas - and taking seriously the threat to law and order. As the mayor and the prefect both implied in their tributes this weekend, however, Corsica is still waiting for its Judge Falcone.