Chirac urges Corsica to take historic step towards autonomy

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President Jacques Chirac has staked his personal prestige on a "yes" vote in an increasingly tricky-looking referendum on limited autonomy for Corsica next weekend.

After carefully avoiding taking a public position on the issue, M. Chirac urged Corsicans yesterday to vote for the unification of the island under one assembly, with limited extra powers over local affairs.

Recent opinion polls have shown a narrow lead for "yes" but with a strong trend towards "no". Defeat in the referendum would not be calamitous for the centre-right government of Jean-Pierre Raffarin but it would be deeply embarrassing and throw into disarray plans for the devolution of some power and administrative control to all French regions.

Under the plan put forward by Nicolas Sarkozy, the Interior Minister, the two départements (or counties) in Corsica would be abolished and the island would be run by a single administration and assembly. Increased powers over some issues, such as tourism and the environment, would be transferred to the assembly.

Although Corsican independence movements initially rejected the proposals as inadequate, they have accepted the idea as a useful first step towards autonomy and even independence. Corsican politicians opposed to independence have mostly opposed the "one Corsica" plan - partly because it would cut the number of elected political positions and administrative jobs.

The power of the Corsican bureaucracy - almost half of all jobs on the island - may have a large bearing on the outcome of next Sunday's vote. Mr Raffarin and Mr Sarkozy were jostled and booed by a large crowd of teachers and other public employees when they visited the island last weekend.

Humiliatingly, the two men, neither of them tall, were seen on the French television news standing on plastic garden chairs trying to make themselves seen and heard above the din. The protest was partly fuelled by anger at plans to reform the pension system for all French public employees. But it was partly driven by fear among state and local employees in Corsica that the new status for the Mediterranean island would cut public jobs.

The Prime Minister's disastrous visit increased pressure on M. Chirac to make a clear public statement on the referendum. M. Chirac has always opposed autonomy for the island and tried to undermine a similar plan put forward by the previous government.

He now finds himself opposed to politicians who take his long-standing view that Corsica should be treated the same as any other part of France.

In an interview with the local newspaper Corse Matin yesterday, he said a "no" vote would "wreck an opportunity to show that Corsicans are capable of uniting around one project". He said a "yes" vote would give Corsicans more say over their destiny while "reaffirming your attachment to France and the Republic".