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Last Updated: Saturday, 5 July, 2003, 01:29 GMT 02:29 UK
Corsica seeks stake in future

By Caroline Wyatt
BBC, Corsica

The French island of Corsica is voting in a referendum to decide on a limited measure of autonomy for the island.

Corsica's clear blue waters lure millions of tourists a year
The referendum will ask whether the islanders want to keep their two administrative departments and one regional council, or elect a new, unified assembly with some limited powers to raise and spend taxes.

The French Government has thrown itself behind the Yes campaign, but many on the Mediterranean island fear that a Yes vote would be seen as a victory for violent nationalists who have waged a bombing and shooting campaign for independence from France since the 1970s.

In France, Corsica is known as the Isle of Beauty, its clear blue waters and unspoilt beaches a lure for millions of tourists each year.

Yet over the centuries, this small island has inspired equal measures of love and hate from its various rulers, thanks to its fierce spirit of independence.

Assembly proposal

Over the past 30 years, the violent Corsican separatist movement has caused untold misery with a bombing and shooting campaign that has killed at least 40 people in the last two years alone.

This will not stop the violence or solve everything but it will create a better climate and then perhaps fewer troubles
MP Paul Giacobbi

But now, for the first time, the French Government is proposing to give Corsica just a little bit more autonomy, as part of wider decentralisation measures it is planning for the whole of France.

This Sunday it is asking Corsica's 190,000 registered voters whether they want a new unified island assembly, which will have more power than its current councils.

Corsican MP Paul Giacobbi, the deputy president of Upper Corsica Council, says he is firmly in favour of the idea.

"This referendum is very important because it is the first time that people in Corsica are entitled to have a say in their own future," he tells the BBC.

"A lot of people say Corsicans think such and such a thing but for the first time people are being asked to give their opinion, to say what they want. It will not stop the violence or solve everything - but it will create a better climate and then perhaps fewer troubles."

Mr Giacobbi might be one of the candidates to head the new assembly, so perhaps his views are not surprising.

PR disaster

But why is this issue so important to the French Government? French Interior Minister Nicholas Sarkozy has paid eight visits to Corsica to campaign for a Yes vote, the last time with Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin.

Even the Romans only wanted Corsicans to fight in the army, not to work anywhere else, because they never obeyed orders
Dominique Sialleli
Corsican businessman

But it was a PR disaster. Both men were booed, jeered and humiliated by protesters, and finally forced to deliver their speeches standing on white plastic chairs at the airport, to ensure they could be seen and heard above the din.

The protesters were mainly those worried about losing their jobs and pensions, especially if there is administrative reform on the island.

Paris-based political analyst Jean-Louis Briquet says winning the referendum is vital for the credibility of Raffarin's government.

"They want the Yesses to win and I think a victory for the No vote could be a significant problem for the government because it needs legitimacy from the Corsican people," he says.

Many Corsicans are not yet sure which way to vote - the debate on the island is vigorous, both in cafes and at public meetings.

Small is beautiful

Opinion polls show the Yes and No votes roughly equal, with the Yesses perhaps a nose ahead.

Corsican musicians
There has always been a strong wish for freedom in Corsica
But some Corsicans, like Francois Tatti, deputy mayor of the town of Bastia in the north, is campaigning for a No and believes the government in Paris is trying to buy off voters.

"The last visit to Corsica by Raffarin and Sarkozy must have cost about 4m euros," he says.

"We hold public meetings and they're much cheaper and work very well. People don't respond to big media campaigns, where the government promises that if we vote Yes, they'll wipe out farmers' debts and give money to the university.

"So does that mean if we vote No, it won't get done? That would mean that it's not a free vote - but a banana republic, a rubber democracy. People here are wise to that."

Many of the fishing boats in Bastia's picturesque harbour lie idle. Traditional ways of making a living - fishing or farming - are in steep decline, yet tourism alone is not enough to sustain the island.

So some here believe the referendum focussing French minds on Corsica's problems cannot be a bad thing, especially if it brings more confidence and fresh investment in new industries.

'Wish for freedom'

Corsican businessman Dominique Sialleli recently set up the island's first brewery making Pietra beer - brewed from chestnuts - and Corsica Cola.

Both are rapidly gaining popularity on the island.

He is no nationalist, but believes this referendum shows the French Government is at last prepared to listen to the people of the island.

"It's been a violent island for 2,000 years, since Roman times," he smiles. "Even the Romans only wanted Corsicans to fight in the army, not to work anywhere else, because they never obeyed orders.

"There's always been a strong wish for freedom here. So I'm sure the referendum won't solve the Corsican problem but it's a path on the way, and I think it's important to pass through this process."

The tourists who come from around the world to enjoy Corsica's secluded sandy beaches probably won't notice or care about the small democratic revolution taking place at the ballot box this Sunday.

But for Corsicans themselves, whichever way they vote, the hope is that this referendum could be one small step on the path to peace.


SEE ALSO:
Chirac backs Corsica devolution
27 Jun 03  |  Europe
Q&A: French devolution
05 Jul 03  |  Europe
Corsica to vote on autonomy
07 Apr 03  |  Europe
France offers Corsica new deal
04 Apr 03  |  Europe
Corsica rattled by bombs
19 Oct 02  |  Europe
France's man of iron
27 Jun 03  |  Europe
Profile: Corsica
28 Jun 03  |  Country profiles


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