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 â€" 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 â€" 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 â€" 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.

Frédérique Campana on the front page of Corsica magazine â€" 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 â€" one is an architect, the other an engineer â€" 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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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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