Terrorist group points finger at Juppe

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The Independent Online
A new scandal threatened Alain Juppe, the French Prime Minister, yesterday after claims that he authorised secret negotiations with Corsica's biggest terrorist group and used senior members of his private office as go-betweens.

Mr Juppe was also accused of having personally agreed to an episode in January when 600 masked and armed members of the FLNC group took part in a press conference at night in the Corsican mountains in an unprecedented show of nationalist strength.

The claims were made in a newspaper interview by Francois Santoni, the head of the FLNC's political wing, Conculta, and they appeared to contradict the Prime Minister's repeated insistence that his government does not negotiate with terrorists.

Mr Juppe's office immediately denied the allegations, saying that Mr Santoni was trying to justify his demands and acts of violence. Patrick Stefanini, the head of Mr Juppe's office and one of those named by Mr Santoni as involved in the talks, also swiftly denied the claims.

The speed and vehemence of the denials only underlines the embarrassment of the prime minister's office, however, in the face of an interview that bore all the hallmarks of authenticity and seemed designed to cause maximum political damage.

Mr Santoni, who has been in hiding since an attempt was made on his life this summer, gave his interview at a safe house in southern Corsica to one of the biggest circulation dailies in the region. He also posed for a rare picture, which appeared alongside the interview. The fact that Mr Santoni spoke to a large-circulation provincial daily rather than a national newspaper suggested a move to pre-empt pressure from the Paris establishment.

The most spectacular of Mr Santoni's allegations is that the press conference in the Tralonca cave, which became a byword for the hidden and illegal power of the FLNC, was staged in full agreement with the government. Mr Santoni said Mr Juppe wanted to ensure that the rank and file of the FLNC should not be able to dissociate themselves from the truce that was announced there, as had happened on a previous occasion.

"Let's be clear," says Mr Santoni, "the Tralonca gathering was negotiated with the government in every detail, up to and including the show of force and the speeches. We were asked ... to produce the maximum number of activists to prove that the movement as a whole embraced the idea of dialogue." He said that Mr Juppe's office even had an advance text of the proceedings so that Jean-Louis Debre, the Interior Minister, was briefed for his visit to Corsica the next day.

Mr Santoni named Jean-Michel Roulet, the head of the prime minister's internal affairs and security department, as having conducted the negotiations.

If Mr Santoni's claims are true this would explain the FLNC's incredulous fury, and its personal warning to Mr Juppe, after his announcement that charges were to be brought against those involved in the Tralonca incident.

At the time that announcement seemed either an inexplicably late attempt at law enforcement, or a piqued response to the bomb attack on Bordeaux town hall, where Mr Juppe is mayor.

Mr Santoni is in no doubt. He accuses Mr Juppe of mistakenly taking the Bordeaux attack personally and regards the government's decision to bring charges relating to its embarrassment in January as a betrayal.

In the past week tension over Corsica has risen and scarcely a night has passed without at least one shooting or bombing incident on the island or the mainland. But no one has been killed: deliberately, says Mr Santoni.

Almost as embarrassing to the prime minister as Mr Santoni's claims of his complicity in the Tralonca incident are the individuals named as go- betweens. These include the former and current directors of Mr Juppe's private office, Maurice Gourdault-Montagne and Mr Stefanini. Mr Santoni says that meetings often took place at the Bristol hotel, one of the plushest in Paris and barely a stone's throw from the Elysee Palace.

Mr Santoni also suggests that the Prime Minister tailors his Corsica policy, including the recent cessation of contacts, to the diktats of in-fighting in the Gaullist RPR party. "If Juppe decided to end the talks, and so the peace process, this was a way of asserting himself and breaking with the attitude of his predecessors ... In general, Juppe says 'no' to anything that comes from a flank of the RPR that is opposed to him."