Bomb blasts after Corsica votes 'No' to more power

Simultaneous blasts in four French-owned holiday homes yesterday raised fears of renewed violence in Corsica after the narrow rejection of limited autonomy for the island in a referendum on Sunday.

The co-ordinated attacks on the unoccupied villas at Tiuccia, south of Ajaccio, is blamed on one or more of the island's many competing separatist movements.

By rejecting new political powers and a single assembly for the island - by 51 per cent to 49 per cent - simultaneous humiliations were inflicted on the separatist movement (which wants an independent Corsica) and the French government (which does not).

The vote leaves in ruins a long process of negotiations on the status of the perennially truculent island, a process started by the Socialist former government of Lionel Jospin and continued by the centre-right Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin.

The "no" vote is an especially damaging reverse for Nicolas Sarkozy, the frenetic and until now hugely successful Interior Minister, who had insisted on an early referendum against the advice of some government colleagues.

M. Sarkozy hoped the arrest last Friday of France's "most wanted" man - Yvan Colonna, a Corsican nationalist accused of murdering the most senior French official on the island in 1998 - would swing anti-separatist, Corsican voters towards the "yes" side. In fact, the "coincidence" of his arrest two days before the referendum appears to have been too much for conspiracy-loving Corsicans to swallow.

There were unconfirmed reports yesterday that the French authorities had known of M. Colonna's hideout, in a remote goatherder's shack, for weeks or even months.

Under the proposals rejected on Sunday, the two départements in Corsica would have been abolished. The island would have been put under the control of a single assembly - instead of two councils and a regional assembly - and a single administration. Paris would have ceded limited extra powers over education, raising taxes, tourism and the environment.

Although the proposals fell far short of independence, or even autonomy, they were supported as a step in the right direction by the most of the island's much-splintered separatist movement. The separatists especially liked the fact that the single assembly would be elected proportionally, giving more political clout to an independence movement which has never scored above the high teens in any poll. The Sarkozy plan was rejected by some anti-independence politicians for the same reasons.

The high "no" vote was also driven by the fact that almost one in two Corsicans depend on publicly funded jobs for a living. They feared that the abolition of an entire layer of government would reduce the number of jobs in the state sector. The referendum campaign also became entangled in public employees' objections to the government's efforts to streamline and decentralise the entire French state apparatus.

M. Raffarin had hoped a "yes" vote would provide a precedent for his plans to shift power and administrative control from Paris to all French regions. Yesterday he said the process would continue, despite the referendum result.

More worryingly for the French state, the referendum defeat leaves the Corsican independence movement with no prospect of winning any change in the island's status by democratic means in the foreseeable future.

Some local politicians warned yesterday - and others threatened - that the result would lead inevitably to an increase in political violence. There have been 134 bomb attacks in Corsica this year.

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