Beaches, bombs and gangsters _ Corsica's dilemma

Published on NewsOK Modified: January 13, 2013 at 1:16 pm •  Published: January 13, 2013

For most of the 20th century, the French government's driving focus was on ending nationalist sentiment, even as Corsica's problem with feeding the global criminal underworld grew. The "French Connection" brought hundreds of millions of dollars worth of heroin into the United States. And Corsican mobsters dominated the gambling and prostitution houses of Paris.

When the latest wave of gangland killings started, in 2006, the French government looked the other way, hoping the criminals would implode the way the nationalists had.

Then, at the end of 2012, when score-settling reached beyond established criminals to Corsica's mainstream political class, the government began to pay serious attention. First, a prominent defense lawyer was killed as he made his usual stop at a gas station on his way to work in Ajaccio. Next, a former nationalist with a uniquely powerful post as head of the chamber of commerce was shot as he closed up shop.

As president of the chamber of commerce, Jacques Nacer was in charge of the air- and seaports that are the island's link to the outside world, and the government money that keeps both up and running. Authorities have not said why they think he was gunned down, beyond noting that it was a professional killing.

More than 15 years ago, the chamber's president used the airport as a helicopter base for drug running between Africa and Europe. His successor was convicted in a fraud scheme involving government contracts.

The slain defense lawyer, Antoine Sollacaro, was best known for representing the nationalist who killed the island's highest ranking official, prefect Claude Erignac, in 1998. Police have offered no theories on his death, beyond noting that it had the same professional hallmarks as all of Corsica's gangland murders.

These killings finally caught the attention of France's top security and justice officials, who stood before the cameras to vow that this time, things would be different. "In Corsica, those who give the orders are known. Everyone knows and no one speaks," said French Interior Minister Manuel Valls.

Of course they don't speak, counters Raphael Vallet, a police investigator in Corsica. Most people can offer only rumors, and those who might know more can't look to the state's shield in France — which, unlike Italy and the United States, has no robust witness protection program for mobster turncoats.

"If you're dealing with someone who is capable of killing you at any moment and we say 'we can't protect you,' would you talk?" said Vallet. "Corsicans are no less brave than anyone else."

The Corsican city of Ajaccio was the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte, who left the island as a youth after deciding that greatness couldn't be attained there. Many others have made similar bets about their future on an island with few resources beyond its natural beauty. Among them, a preferred path has been criminal empire.

French government policy was — and remains — that Corsica is an integral part of the nation. Islanders, meanwhile, call the rest of France "the continent" and proudly speak their own Italian-inflected language that the Paris government once tried unsuccessfully to wipe out.

The bombings of Dec. 7 struck at 31 villas, all of them with absentee homeowners away on "the continent."

The nationalist FLNC, which announced its resurrection in a theatrical news conference in July complete with masks and guns, claimed responsibility on Dec. 19 and denied any collusion with organized crime, saying gangsters had "prospered in the shadow of the French state for decades."

The explosions appeared to have no links to the hit on the young man, whose death is believed to be the latest professional killing to go unsolved.

Bianchi, the former mayor, was once jailed for his links to the group and has since publicly renounced violence. But he, like many Corsicans, couldn't bring himself to condemn the bombings in a place they consider their homeland.

"Even if I don't approve, I understand. I understand because in the current climate of Corsica, where there is enormous land speculation, there is a revolt," he said. "We don't want their country ... to become a place just for rich retirees in the next 10 or 15 years. We don't want it to become another Cote d'Azur."