Fri, Aug 27, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Corsica has a new target for its enduring violence

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , BASTIA, CORSICA

Kahlid Diani stepped into the local branch of Wafa Bank here last week, taking care not to cut himself on the shattered glass and twisted metal left by a bomb that destroyed the office last month.

The concrete walls were cracked, and debris blocked the counter where Moroccan workers once lined up to repatriate their earnings. Less than an hour after the bombing, an Arab pastry shop named One Thousand and One Saviors was attacked in the center of town.

"Since Sept. 11, they consider us all terrorists," said Diani, referring to the anti-Arab violence that has unsettled this mountainous Mediterranean island for the past year.

The violence is a magnified version of the racist disquiet percolating through the rest of France and many other places in Europe as a generation born to Arab immigrants comes of age and tries uneasily to take its place in societies that were once mostly homogeneous. Many people fear it is a harbinger of conflicts to come as immigration, particularly Arab immigration, reshapes Europe's aging populations. The conflict is greatest in tradition-bound areas like Corsica and Alsace, where distinctive local customs are under pressure.

"This is an island, a geographically isolated place, where the original population is afraid that their culture is disappearing," Pierre-Rene Lemas, Corsica's prefect, said last month.

Corsica has a long history of resisting outsiders and has been home to a simmering independence movement since the 1960s. That movement has depended largely on homemade bombs, which have become an almost daily feature of Corsican life.

By the 1980s there were 600 to 700 explosions a year, and sometimes dozens of detonations within hours of each other on what Corsicans called "blue nights," a reference to the flashes from the bombs. There were 295 blasts last year, and while the pace has somewhat slackened, there is still, on average, one explosion somewhere on the island every other day.

Police stations are a favorite target, but some attacks are aimed at vacation homes built by French mainlanders or foreign nationals, who Corsican separatists say are slowly colonizing the island.

More recently, though, the island's growing Arab community has become a target. While those bombings still account for only a fraction of the frequent attacks, nearly everyone here seems to recognize that there is something far more sinister about them.

Corsica's Arab population has increased sharply over the past 30 years, primarily from Moroccans brought to work the fields here by former French colonials who fled newly independent Algeria in the 1960s. North African Arabs now represent at least 10 percent of the island's 260,000 people.

There was little problem for the original immigrants, but as their children have taken their place in Corsican society, competing with Corsicans in the island's sparse economy, problems have grown. Most people agree that anti-Arab sentiment broke into the open after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"What concerns me is that many Corsican teenagers today are viscerally anti-Arab," said Christophe Raffin, a local magistrate, whose daughters he said have been pressured to take sides in Corsican-Arab schoolyard disputes.

The trouble has accelerated since last year, after tension between young Arabs and Corsicans in Bastia's crumbling old quarter erupted into a brawl along the narrow Rue Droite, a street that is now predominantly inhabited by Arabs. The government counted 60 racist incidents last year and already lists 35 this year -- nearly double the rate in the rest of France.

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