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Corsica  Voters Reject Autonomy Referendum

Voters in a referendum in Corsica have rejected a plan aimed at giving the Mediterranean island greater autonomy from France. The result is a defeat for both the French government and Corsican nationalists. The island's future, and whether Corsica can overcome its history of violence, is now far from clear.

The no vote won by a narrow margin Sunday, with slightly less than 51 percent of Corsican voters turning thumbs down on the government's plan for granting the island greater governing powers.

The Corsican referendum was a first in the island's history. It dealt with a purely technical issue, to consolidate two administrative units into one, but would have paved the way for greater local power.

For the French government of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the rejection of the measure amounts to a stunning setback, and it may cast a shadow on other government plans to decentralize French decision-making. French authorities had invested an enormous amount of manpower and funds in trying to secure a victory, with Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy visiting the island no less than eight times in just more than a year.

Mr. Sarkozy said that Corsicans have retained the status quo. That may include ongoing secessionist violence that has bedeviled the island for the past 30 years.

While Corsicans appear to have rejected the government measure for a number of reasons, the last-minute capture of an alleged Corsican terrorist may have influenced the outcome. On Friday, French police nabbed Yvan Colonna, described as the most sought-after man in France, who allegedly assassinated the French prefect to Corsica in 1998.

There was some speculation that Mr. Colonna's capture would help consolidate a government victory in the referendum. But a number of Corsicans apparently felt they were being manipulated by the government, by Mr. Colonna's remarkable last-minute capture after four years on the run.

Others refused to vote for a measure approved by Corsican separatist leaders, who have limited support in Corsica.

Still other Corsicans, such as a 60-year-old man who spoke on French radio, rejected a referendum drafted by Paris, likening it to a colonial directive.

Members of France's political opposition also criticized the center-right government for allegedly mishandling the Corsican referendum. So did Corsican nationalist leaders. Paradoxically, those same leaders backed the referendum this spring, as the first step toward politically separating the island from France.

What these nationalists or French officials will next propose for Corsica is anyone's guess.