Out of the headlines…journalist attacked

2263434My first contact with Guy Benhamou was in the mid-1990s when he covered the Corsican situation for Libération, known as Libé, the French daily newspaper founded by Jean Paul Sartre and Serge July in 1973 in the wake of the protest movements of May, 1968. Originally an extreme left newspaper, it underwent a number of shifts during the 1980s and 1990s to take the Social Democrat position. At its peak in 2001, it had a circulation of about 170,000 and was the first French daily to have a website. Mr. Benhamou was kind enough to send me copies of all of his coverage, which I translated from the French, and wished me well in my endeavor to write [at that time a screenplay] about Corsica.

santoni and bookPrior to 2000, Mr. Benhamou conducted extended interviews at the request of Jean Michel Rossi and François Santoni, in which the two very frankly discussed the inside skinny on the paramilitary groups in Corsica and commented on the personal feuds, the corruption, and their own covert negotiations with the French State. By doing so, the two were breaking the island’s ancient code of silence, which they admitted they had punished others for doing so.

Rossi funeralIt was not surprising that in August 2000, Rossi and his bodyguard died in a hail of automatic fire as they sat outside a bar having their morning coffee. A chief rival was suspected but only imprisoned on other charges. Santoni realized he was living on borrowed time (having survived an assassination attempt in 1995) and became even more vocal, causing great embarrassment to his enemies. He even predicted his own assassination, which indeed did occur on August 17th of 2001 when gunmen invaded a wedding he was attending.

-Even as recently at 2012, there were twelve assassinations related to the movement, which is now described by some commentators as being dominated by organized crime.

220px-Dr_Edmond_SimeoniHowever, Corsican Nationalism in its purer political and social form is still alive and well on the island. Edmond Simeoni, now in his late 80s, described as the “Father of Nationalism” is one of the movement’s major inspirational voices. The Nationalists call for the political sovereignty of Corsica, partially based on cultural and ethnic differences between the island and the mainland, the promotion of the Corsican language (lingua corsa or in French Corsu) and its compulsory teaching in schools, the limiting of tourist infrastructure and policies promoting tourism, and in its place sustainable economic development, compliance with building permits and coastal law, and the recognition of political prisoner status for members of the Corsican nationalist movement including those who have committed acts amounting to common crimes. It is to these efforts that I dedicate my novel, especially the preservation and use of lingua corsa.

526x297-WD7After the publication of Pour solde de tout compte, Guy Benhamou was himself the target of reprisals, a prime example of an attempt to kill the “messenger” that has played out so recently in such a tragic way in Paris at the offices of Charlie Hebdo. Guys home was strafed with automatic fire as is seen in this news video and he and his family were put under police protection. He continues as a journalist to this day but focuses on non-political reporting. My character of Pierre Benatar was inspired by Mr. Benhamou but not intended in any way to be a real-life portrayal of this famous and courageous journalist.

Rossi, Jean-Michel and Santoni, François. Entretiens avec [as told to] Guy Benhamou. Pour solde de tout compte, Les nationalistes corse parlent. Paris, Éditions Denoël, 2000.

Researching the Corsican Nationalist Movement

In the mid 1990s when I first got the notion to write a fictional account about Corsica, I asked a colleague of mine, who visited France often, if he knew anything about the island that would provide a source of dramatic conflict in my novel. He asked if I had seen the State Department travel warnings mentioning numerous bombings, attacks, and assassinations connected with the Corsican Nationalist movement, although they were careful to point out that no tourists had ever been harmed.liberation I began my search for more information about the situation by perusing a copy of Liberation, the radical French newspaper, where I found articles by Guy Benhamou, the premier journalist covering the Corsican situation at that time. I wrote him (these were pretty much pre-internet, pre-email times) and received back copies of his articles in French and a lovely letter wishing me well in my writing endeavors.

book coverIn the year 2000, that same journalist authored a book, Pour Solde de Tout Compte: Les nationalistes corses parlent, which essentially was a “final accounting” byJean-Michel Rossi and François Santoni, the most predominate of the movement’s rival leaders. Both suggested that even the Corsican rebels were weary of the fight for independence, and of the corruption and crime which that fight had engendered. funeral santoniWithin a year both of these men had been assassinated and Guy and his family were put under police protection. This photo shows Santoni as one of Rossi’s pallbearers prior to his own death.

The conflict is not over. In 2012 alone there were twelve assassinations on the island, all related in some fashion to the ongoing conflict between separatist factions. In my novel, I touch on some of the themes of the Nationalist movement as it existed back in 1996 but, as an outsider and as a writer of fiction, I do not pretend that my portrayal is at all accurate or fair to any of the parties involved. It’s as if a foreigner were writing about our American Revolution, in which my own ancestors took part. I can only pray that through the struggles of my fictional characters, readers will understand a bit more about the political and social struggles of Corsica’s Nationalists, especially their goal to preserve the Corsican language, lingua corsa, and that they will get a glimpse of the overriding beauty of the island, its fascinating customs and history, and the courage and determination of its people.

flag and hillsThrough the centuries, Corsicans have withstood many invaders, often by taking to the maquis. My hope would be that they would tolerate and forgive the invasion of this American author into their customs and conflicts.