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Orsoni Affair: A Family Saga In The Corsican Underworld

Guy Orsoni (left) and his father Alain
Guy Orsoni (left) and his father Alain
Pascale Robert-Diard

AIX-EN-PROVENCE — For a moment, Alain Orsoni was his old legendary self, the charismatic nationalist and dashing adventurer who struggled for independence at home, roamed for years through South America, and is still muscular enough to fill out his plain white t-shirt.

He was talking about himself because he was asked to, but also because it's something he likes to do — even, in this case, when his audience is a judge and jury. "Do you want me to tell you about all these times I met with interior ministers, your Honor?"

But then he is asked about his relationship with his son, Guy, who faces a possible 30-year prison sentence. Under the white t-shirt, Orsoni's shoulders slump. "I wasn't the best dad," he answers.

"Who took care of your son?"

"His mother."

Orsoni goes on to say that he has "the utmost respect, esteem and affection for" the woman, Frédérique Campana, who sits silently in the second row of the criminal court in Aix-en-Provence, in southern France.

"She was a flawless woman and mother. She had to endure so many awful things on account of me …" His words won't come out. "I am entirely responsible for the failure of our relationship and all the others."

This admission is not directed at the court but at Campana, whose face is sunken with pain. It is the sole moment of truthfulness in the trial, which began on May 11 and concluded seven weeks later. The court ended up sentencing Orsoni to one year in prison. Guy got eight years for a separate crime.

Revolutionary romance

For a long time, Orsoni and Campana formed a radiant couple. She was an Algerian-born Parisian, daughter of a colonel and 20 years old when she met the handsome nationalist. Orsoni, a Corsican separatist, had already planted a few bombs and famously fired a machine gun at the Iranian embassy by the time they met. Campana was a young lawyer. They fell madly in love.

By his side, the future lawyer would learn about justice via its most controversial component, the State Security Court, which convicted and sentenced Orsoni in 1980. Indeed, the special anti-terrorism court was also the topic she was asked to discuss during the oral component of her bar examination. The examiner "read my name and said, ‘For you, Miss, it'll be the State Security Court,'" Campana recalls.

When the left rose to power in France in 1981 with François Mitterrand, Alain Orsoni was granted a pardon. Campana gave up on her promising career in Paris to accompany Orsoni to Corsica. She had there before on holidays, with her mother, but otherwise knew little about the island, 250 kilometers southeast of Nice. But she decided to make a go of it and set up a practice in Ajaccio, where she shared an office with a lawyer involved in the nationalistic struggle.

It didn't take long before she came face-to-face with the violence of Corsica. In 1983, Guy Orsoni, Alain's brother, was abducted, never to be found again. A year later, a squad of militants from the National Liberation Front of Corsica (FLNC) wearing gendarmes outfits barged into the Ajaccio prison and killed the two men suspected of assassinating Guy Orsoni. That same day, Campana left the hospital with her first son, named Guy, after his uncle.

His mother's son

Alain Orsoni, who publicly voiced his support for the prison attack, was arrested for "glorification of crimes" and sent to the Les Baumettes prison in Marseille. Campana left their son with her parents and took a ship to the continent to prepare her husband's defense. "I still remember the clothes I was wearing that day," she says, smiling.

By the mid-90s, the family's life was turned upside down once again. The vendetta between former brothers-in-arms was intensifying. "From that moment on, I had to live with the idea that Alain could be killed as well," Campana says.

For a time she considered leaving Corsica for Paris with her two children. In the end, though, it was the father who left. His exile would take him to Spain and Nicaragua before leading to Cuba, a journey that would last 14 years.

During this period, Guy was his mother's son. At home, Campana's parents handled much of the child care: The grandmother brought the kids home after school and the grandfather helped with homework. "He is the one who taught my son how to ride a bike and took him on his first hunting trip, not his father," Campana says.

All the wrong moves

As a teenager, Guy asked to join his father in Nicaragua for a school year. It turned out to be a short-lived experience as Orsoni was expelled, not long afterwards, from the country. Guy returned to Ajaccio, to his mother's care and the weight of his father's name.

One side of his family made him work hard to get his high school diploma. The other tempted him to follow a more dangerous path. Guy went to universty and began studying law. But he failed his first year. After the setback, he planed to join the army. But his application was rejected. "It was because of his father's reputation. Guy was distraught," says Campana.

One of his uncles helped him get a job in a company. But Guy wasn't happy there, so he quit. He preferred to spend his days at the beach and his nights in dance clubs. He also liked weapons. The Corsican underworld, where the Orsoni name carries clout, beckoned.

Guy was just 20 year when he first ran afoul of the law. A court found him guilty of criminal association and sentenced him to 18 months in jail. The sentence was reduced to 12 months after appeal.

"I understood that day that in the eyes of the public, he was more his father's son than his mother's," says Campana. "I was a lawyer. He was young and had never been convicted for anything. But the only thing that mattered when the sentence came, apparently, was his family name."

A second arrest followed, and with it money-laundering charges — based on the fact that police found 35,000 euros in the car Guy was traveling with three friends.

Feuding families

It was around that time, in 2008, that Alain Orsoni finally decided to come back to Corsica, where he was appointed president of one Ajaccio's two soccer teams. Six months after his return, police thwarted an assassination attempt against him. After that he always traveled in an armored car, and urged his son to take precautions as well.

Rumor, in the meantime, was spreading that the former nationalistic leader was behind a few recent murders, and that he was plotting to take control of local affairs, something another family, the Castolas, was also keen to do.

The police quickly turned to the Orsoni family when, in January 2009, Thierry Castola and his friend Sabri Brahimi were murdered. Thierry's brother, Francis Castola, escaped the attack. In Thierry Castola's home, the police found a hand-written note, sent by Alain Orsoni, in the DVD jacket of the movie There Will Be Blood.

"The game doesn't usually provide the hunter with bullets," the note read. "I will obliterate you and your people. Don't ever approach my son again".

Orsoni then made a fateful mistake: He was careless on the telephone, unintentially leading police to his fugitive son, who, knowing he'd soon arrested, had fled to Madrid and hoped to reach Gabon.

Soon, both father and son were behind bars. In total, a dozen men were accused of involvement in the murders. But the name that stood out, of course, was Orsoni. Alain Orsoni was later released pending trial. Guy, because of his long rap sheet, was kept in custody.

More mother than lawyer

Campana took it upon herself to watch over Guy and plan his defense strategy. She used all her connections, including the Departmental Human Rights League, of which she was a member. She also organized public meetings to rally people to protest against her son's extended custody. Guy at one point even went on a hunger strike.

Not everyone appreciated the efforts. During the arraignment, the presiding judge complained of "a never-before-seen media campaign." Campana admits "it probably wasn't the best idea" and says Guy is now paying a price for all that attention.

[rebelmouse-image 27089189 alt="""" original_size="300x418" expand=1]

Frédérique Campana on the front page of Corsica magazine — Source: Corsica

Everyone in the family was asked to take part in Guy's defense. Campana's father, a former army colonel, used his military rank and his Legion on Honor status to try to get his grandson freed. The efforts proved fruitless and he died without seeing Guy again. The prisoner was allowed to attend his grandfather's funeral, handcuffed and accompanied by three officers.

Campana's sisters — one is an architect, the other an engineer — provided their nephew with an alibi. Opportunely, they remembered, three years after the fact, that they were shopping in Ajaccio with Guy at the exact time Thierry Castola was killed.

Campana's involvment meant she got to choose her son's laywers. She hired a lot of them, sometimes too many. When an important witness, whose testimony was essential to the prosecutor, was called up for a face-to-face with Guy, the accused came to the judge's office with five lawyers. The witness, a young woman, was by herself. She ultimately retracted her statement. The judge ruled that the witness was pressured.

"I regret what I did," says Campana. "The blame is on me alone. I reacted more as a mother than a lawyer."

She says she considered defending Guy herself, donning the black robe to stand by her son's side. She wanted to have the floor to make her plea. But she worried it would have been too much. With the work of other attorneys, Guy was acquitted in the end of the murder and attempted murder charges, but will have to serve time for involvement with a counterfeiting association. His father was found guilty of making death threats.

The lawyer-mother, nonetheless, was present at every court hearing. And every time Guy entered the room, it was her Roman she-wolf's eyes he sought out. More than once she says she had to stop herself from screaming at the top of her lungs: "If there is one person that Guy wants to please, it's me. Not his father!"

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