Corsica fire puts French leaders on the hot seat

Prime Minister Jospin under scrutiny following arson attack.

It is one of the great ironies of French history that Napoleon Bonaparte, who ruthlessly imposed central government rule over the provinces and gave the country its code of justice, should have been born in Corsica, the most separatist-minded and lawless region of France.

Never have mainland authorities been able to bring the Mediterranean island fully under control. And now a bizarre tale of official banditry there has ensnared French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin in his gravest crisis since taking office three years ago.

The island's former prfet, the highest state authority in Corsica, is currently in custody as the investigation continues into a midnight operation in which three gendarmes from an elite security unit, now disbanded, allegedly burned down an illegally constructed beachfront restaurant near the Corsican capital, Ajaccio.

The unprecedented arrest has raised awkward questions about who else may have been aware of the scheme since the prfet, Bernard Bonnet, reported directly to Mr. Jospin's office in Paris. The scandal has also shed new light on Corsica's tangled world of corrupt politicians, separatist guerrillas, secret service agents, and black-market business deals.

Mr. Bonnet was arrested when the three gendarmes - traced from clues left at the scene - named him as the instigator of the plan to set fire to beach eatery Chez Francis, which he had been trying to shut down for months.

The restaurant owner had pulled political strings, however, reportedly using his status as an informer for the French secret police to resist a closure order issued four years ago.

Bonnet was named prfet last year following the assassination of his predecessor, Claude Erignac, by presumed separatist guerrillas. Given carte blanche by the government to get tough, colleagues say Bonnet targeted the many beach restaurants - shacks built without construction permits - as symbolic of the lack of law and order in Corsica. Chez Francis appears to have attracted his special wrath because it was known as a popular hangout for Corsican nationalists.

Government ministers have distanced themselves from Bonnet, denying all knowledge of what Interior Minister Jean-Pierre Chevnement called an "absurd" operation that constituted "a betrayal of the government's policy whose fundamental intention is to reestablish the state of law" in Corsica. Bonnet has gone on a prison hunger strike, maintaining his innocence.

Countering opposition calls for ministerial resignations, the government has sought to salvage some honor by pointing out how freely the magistrates who are investigating the incident have been allowed to work.

IN A country where government interference in judicial investigations has long been routine, the speed with which judges have homed in on senior officials in this case is unprecedented.

"At bottom, there is real progress toward a state of law," Paul Giacobbi, a prominent Corsican political leader, said in a radio interview last week. "Because this is not the first time that the state has gravely violated the law in Corsica.... But it is the first time that we have seen free, independent, rapid, dignified, and discreet justice at work."

As a new prfet takes office this week, the government appears too busy with damage control to have settled on a new policy toward Corsica, and it is unclear whether Jospin will maintain his strict law-and-order stance or seek political means to quell the simmering nationalist uprising that has plagued the island for decades.

Complicating any attempt to deal with the nationalists, say political analysts, is the degree to which the separatist movement seems intertwined with the Corsican mafia, using its gunmen to enforce protection rackets as much as to fight for independence from Paris.

Meanwhile, the new prfet, Jean-Pierre Lacroix, will find himself wrestling with what the weekly Nouvel Observateur magazine called "the weapons Corsica has that the state of law can do nothing about - its inertia which comes from the depths of the ages, and that strange power it has always had to drive mad anyone who tries to change it."

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