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Beaches, bombs and gangsters

The bombs exploded across hundreds of miles of Corsican coastline, gutting two dozen villas nearly simultaneously on some of Europe's most beautiful and valuable land. Elsewhere on the same French island off the Mediterranean coast, a young man was shot to death in his car, his stepson wounded beside him.

The night of violence in early December epitomized the problems of Napoleon's native island today: Organized crime is gaining ground, spreading beyond the usual vices on the mainland to real estate, tourism and politics back home. And separatists, who extinguished themselves in a spasm of deadly infighting in the late 1990s, have come back with a vengeance, as they wage a desperate battle to prevent mob-dominated mass tourism from dooming their dreams of self-rule.

Corsican coastal land prices have risen as much as five times in as many years, and the number of tourists also has shot up as a once-exclusive haven for the wealthy and their yachts and private vacation homes became a destination for cruise ships and budget flights. Corsican mobsters, infamous in mainland France and the United States for their ties to gambling, nightclubs and drugs, saw a killing to be made back home.

Gang warfare over Corsican spoils and the separatist bombing campaign have created a climate of lawlessness, although the combatants have been careful not to turn the violence on the tourists themselves.

"The state has completely failed," said Dominique Bianchi, a former nationalist leader who recently stepped down as mayor of the southern village of Villanova. "In this world, there's only one thing that counts: how to divide the loot."

Shaken by the bombings, and the recent assassinations of a defence lawyer and community leader, the Paris government is making new promises to clean things up on an island where separatist sentiment has simmered ever since France officially took charge in 1769. Corsica has emerged as a jewel of French mass tourism only recently: More than 4.2 million tourists visited the island last year, compared to 2.4 million in 1992. The 2013 Tour de France, the world's premier cycling competition, will begin here, adding to the sense that Corsica has joined the big leagues as a top travel destination.

Complicating the challenge for France is what mainland officials describe as a code of silence, known as "omerta", which also runs through areas of mafia-plagued southern Italy. Locals say it's fear, not omerta, that keeps people silent.

The Canadian Press


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