Corsica Rejects French Restructuring Plan

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Jul 7 18:03:04 UTC 2003

>>From the New York Times, July 7, 2003

In Blow to Paris, Corsica Rejects French Restructuring Plan


    AJACCIO, Corsica, July 6 In a stunning blow to the French government,
Corsicans voted by a slim margin today to reject a plan intended to
enhance their decision-making powers. The center-right government in Paris
had campaigned hard for a "yes" vote in the referendum, equating it with
love of the French state, economic prosperity for the island and a way for
Corsicans to calm separatist violence and take charge of their destiny.
Corsica was considered a political laboratory of sorts for the highly
centralized government in Paris to give more power to its regions.

But few voters seemed to understand the purpose of the exercise or whether
the outcome would improve their lives. And many believed that the timing
of the arrest on Friday evening of a Corsican nationalist who was the most
wanted man in France was not accidental, but a crass political move
intended to garner more positive votes. In addition, the referendum was
supported by the island's nationalist party, Corsica Nazione, which called
a "yes" vote a positive step on the road to independence from France. That
frightened voters who feared that the nationalists would gain a greater
voice in Corsican politics.

With a turnout of 60 percent, the vote was 51 percent against change and
49 percent in favor. France's president, Jacques Chirac, had supported the
referendum, telling the Corsican newspaper Corse-Matin nine days ago that
it was "the best way" for people living on the French island "to affirm
their attachment to France and the Republic." Prime Minister Jean-Pierre
Raffarin, who had described the referendum as "a `no' to violence, a `no'
to economic backwardness," said in a televised statement after the vote:
"Today, the Corsicans have chosen the status quo. Their choice will be
accepted." The rejection of the proposal was particularly politically
damaging for the hard-line interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, who had
expected a victory. Mr. Sarkozy had said he would take the results of the
referendum personally, telling France 3 radio in recent days, "If the `no'
wins, it's unquestionably a failure for me."

In a brief televised statement this evening, Mr. Sarkozy said, "This
demonstrates again how the path of reforms is difficult in Corsica,"
adding, "There is nothing to regret about having given them a voice." At
510 polling stations across the island, voters were asked to put small
white cards with "oui" or "non" printed in bold letters into unsealed
lavender envelopes and drop them in clear locked Plexiglas boxes.

A "yes" vote would have put the two regional administrations under the
authority of one body, a move aimed at unifying decision-making over
everyday life. It would eliminate the two separate administrations and
therefore the inconsistency in matters as varied as the prevention and
extinguishing of Corsica's raging forest fires and the generosity of state
aid for the unemployed. It also would have given an assembly of locally
elected politicians more say over raising taxes, tourism and the
environment. The vote was also a setback for women in Corsican politics. A
"yes" vote would have forced the male-dominated political elite to adopt
quotas for women taking part in Corsican politics. The list of candidates
for local elections would have had to include an equal number of men and

Perhaps the strongest indication that little real power would have moved
to Corsica even if the plan had passed today is that a "yes" result would
not have been binding, but would have come into effect only after Paris
had accepted it. Not surprisingly, many voters described themselves as
feeling confused and manipulated. Also not surprisingly, in a part of
France that has been racked by separatist violence for three decades and
Mafia-style crime and corruption for even longer, most declined to
disclose their names. At a polling station in an elementary school in the
Parc Berthault neighborhood of Ajaccio, a 55-year-old retired government
worker said that she had decided the referendum was worthless and had
dropped an empty envelope into the box. "The government has not given us a
good explanation of why we are voting,"  she said. "I am a responsible
citizen so I cast by ballot. But I voted nothing as a protest because I
understood nothing."

A 67-year-old retiree who voted `no' railed at the politicians in Paris
for telling him what to think. "They tell us a `yes' vote will integrate
us better into France," the husband said.  "Well, I already am integrated
in France. This is an insult to me. It's nothing but base politics."
Opinion polls over the years indicate that only a small percentage of
Corsicans favor independence. The island, the birthplace of Napoleon
Bonaparte 100 miles south of the French Riviera, was sold in 1768 by the
city state of Genoa to France.

Voters were particularly incensed that fewer than 48 hours before the
referendum, the police arrested Yvan Colonna, a 43-year-old Corsican
nationalist, after a four-year investigation. Mr. Colonna is suspected as
being the gunman in the 1998 assassination of Claude Erignac, who was the
governor of Corsica. Many voters suspected that the French government had
cut some sort of deal with Mr.  Colonna or his lawyer, and that it
expected to gain votes because the arrest would be seen as a victory of
the French authorities over terrorism. "I'm convinced that the arrest of
Colonna was the result of a negotiation," said Paul Silvani, the author of
several books on Corsica, who voted against the proposal today. "The
choice of timing was deliberate to get more `yes' votes."

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