Corsicans narrowly reject partial self-rule

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The people of Corsica narrowly rejected a government proposal to give them greater autonomy yesterday.In a referendum proposing partial self-rule, 50.98 per cent of Corsicans voted "no" after a turn-out of about 60 per cent of 190,000 eligible voters.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the French Interior Minister, who had campaigned energetically for the "yes" vote, said: "This demonstrates again how the path of reforms is difficult in Corsica."

The government wants a devolution of power to stop a violent separatist movement that has been blowing up cars and kidnapping notables sporadically for more than 25 years.

The referendum, the first in France's fifth republic, was given added prominence on Friday when the most wanted man in France for the past four years, the Corsican rebel Yvan Colonna, was arrested in a police raid on a sheep farm. Mr Colonna is accused of shooting dead the prefect of the island, the de facto governor, on a crowded street in the capital, Ajaccio, in February 1998.

The government's proposalwould have been a cautious first step towards self-government. Southern Corsica and Upper Corsica, the two départements that govern the island's affairs, would have been largely replaced by a single entity. This body would have had the right to raise taxes and to have some say on tourism ­ the island's only real money-spinner ­ and the environment.

This was the latest attempt by Paris to halt decades of agitation for independence in the country's poorest and most heavily subsidised region. The separatists are supported by only 20 per cent of the population of 270,000, and the President, Jacques Chirac, had tried to persuade waverers that a vote for the new dispensation was not a first step on the road to independence.

He said a "yes" vote was the best way for Corsicans to show "their attachment to France and the republic". He added: "To say no just because some [nationalists] say yes, that makes no sense. That would make them the masters of the game ... I know that the vast majority of Corsicans want to stay French. It would be incomprehensible if at the moment they are asked to confirm it, they fail to."

But in the bars of Ajaccio, the subject on people's minds was the capture of Yvan Colonna. His photograph has been posted in every police station in the country, and police have travelled as far as South America to look for him. He was said to have changed his appearance drastically, by growing a beard and putting on weight.

His arrest was an important breakthrough for the Paris authorities. For some in Corsica, the fact of M. Colonna's arrest two days before the referendum was a little too neat not to be suspicious. Some suggested the arrest was timed to encourage support for the government's position on the referendum. But M. Sarkozy, denied the charge. "If we could have arrested Yvan Colonna, who could doubt that we would have done it?" he said.

There is irony in the first French move towards devolution being in Corsica ­ it is the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte, the creator of the centralised French state.