An aristocrat who wishes to be a man of the people


Prince Charles Napoleon would like to be a man of the people, an ordinary bloke doing right by his fellow Corsicans. You can find him in the local minitel electronic directory under N for Napoleon.

A few months ago, when he decided to stand for mayor of Ajaccio, the 50-year-old prince sold his consultancy business in Paris and moved to this hot, restless island.

When I arrive at his campaign headquarters at 71 Cours Napoleon, the prince is waiting in the unfurnished former shop, wearing an old T-shirt and khaki trousers. But you can't hide two centuries of aristocratic breeding and the best education in Europe. He seems embarrassed by his height - over two metres - and as we drink mineral water at the open-air cafe next door, I have to strain to hear his soft-spoken, carefully polished French.

Isn't it ironic, I ask him, that his illustrious ancestor founded the French gendarmerie and corps prefectoral, the mainstays of French rule in Corsica? "Irony is a question that is posed. Let us be ironic," the prince says, and for a moment I imagine him in imperial garb, enjoying a little verbal joust at court.

Or he could be Mr Jean-Pierre Chevenement, the articulate leftwing interior minister who resigned this week in protest against the autonomy plan for Corsica of the Prime Minister, Mr Lionel Jospin.

"Chevenement is a friend," Charles Napoleon says. "But I disagree with him on Corsica. I support the Matignon Accords completely. They are the way to avoid an independent Corsica. Autonomy is not independence. We must be responsible for ourselves - not always demanding subsidies from Paris."

Charles Napoleon says "we" when talking about Corsica. Until three years ago, when he founded the "association for the promotion and defence of the image of Corsica", few here had heard of him. "We have a bad image," he explains. "They ascribe all the vices on earth to us: we are people who misuse public funds; we're violent mafiosi. We must prove this isn't the case."

He has also launched a capital risk investment fund called Femu Qui, which in Corsican means "Let's do it here". With the Ffr 22 million (£2.64 million) he has raised from Corsicans - and a little help from Paris - Prince Charles wants to assist new enterprises and establish business and tourism schools.

The outgoing mayor of Ajaccio resigned after a government report criticised him for mismanagement. Charles Napoleon points at the cratered asphalt road beside us. "You'd think you were in Abidjan," he says with disgust. The election will take place on September 17th and 24th, but the new mayor will govern for only six months until nationwide municipal elections next March.

"It's March we're interested in," Charles Napoleon says. He promises to renegotiate Ajaccio's Ffr 600 million debt, build a cultural centre and nursery schools, install sports equipment in poor neighbourhoods, create jobs - especially for the young - and do something about the traffic jams on Ajaccio's main thoroughfare, the Cours Napoleon.

You cannot escape the Napoleon name here. I stay in the Hotel Napoleon, drink coffee in the Grand Cafe Napoleon, shop in the Napoleon arcade, and in the evening watch the Napoleon Bonaparte ferry set off for the continent. Prince Charles Napoleon has lent family heirlooms to the Bonaparte house, where you can see the daybed where the emperor was born, the alcove where he slept on his last visit to the island in 1799, even the list of missing household goods drawn up by "Madame Mere" after the 1793-1796 British occupation of Corsica.

The finest salon in the town hall which Charles Napoleon would like to win is a museum filled with paintings and busts of his ancestors. When Charles's father, Prince Louis Napoleon, died in 1997, his coffin was paraded through the streets of Ajaccio in the family carriage as men lowered their hats to the ground. Six generations of the Napoleon family are entombed in the imperial chapel, and there is even talk of bringing his ashes from the Invalides in Paris.

Yet Charles Napoleon admits his great-great-grand-uncle "subjugated" his homeland. An understatement, says the historian Dr Gabriel Xavier Culioli. "General Morand, whom Napoleon sent here, boasted that he killed at least one Corsican every day. Napoleon Bonaparte was sorry at the end of his life, but it was a terrible period for the island."

Charles Napoleon insists that it would be "arbitrary" to "draw lessons from what happened two centuries ago". But Napoleon I would almost certainly reject Mr Jospin's autonomy plan. "So that Corsica remains irrevocably attached to the republic," the emperor recommended that it be divided into two departments (the Matignon Accords would make it one), that no Coriscans be given positions in the government and that 50 Corsican children be chosen every year for education in Paris "where they will learn the most excessive attachment for France".

"Lui, c'est lui, moi c'est moi," says the scion of the house of Napoleon. Prince Charles criticises the negligence of Paris, "which never enforced the law here" and "always escaped its responsibilities by relying on clans".

His two main opponents in the mayoral election are "clan leaders", he says. Irony of ironies, one is a self-avowed Bonapartist, with Napoleon memorabilia strewn around his office. The other, the speaker of the Corsican assembly, Mr Jose Rossi, began his career as a Bonapartist.

"I am a republican and a democrat, but not at all a Bonapartist," the prince declares. While we were talking, someone put three Napoleonic equestrian figurines in the empty display window of his campaign head quarters.

"They're coming out immediately," Charles Napoleon said.