French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin's one-year-old government struggled to play down its first serious setback on Monday after Corsicans rejected a plan offering them limited autonomy from Paris.
Fifty-one percent of Corsicans said "no" in Sunday's referendum on government proposals aimed at ending three decades of separatist violence on the Mediterranean island by allowing locals more say in areas from tax to tourism policy.
"This is a defeat, there is no denying it," said Patrick Devedjian, the junior minister charged with Raffarin's pet aim of offering France's regions greater autonomy.
Raffarin himself was philosophical about the result.
"The government is not in a bad mood, and has no resentment," he told regional daily Centre Presse in an interview printed yesterday.
"Clearly, I would have preferred a positive vote. I regret the no, but I respect the vote of the Corsicans ... The Corsicans have chosen the institutional status quo and it is in this framework that we will work together from now on," he said.
French media were scathing, saying Raffarin and his Cabinet's rising star, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, had botched a chance to resolve the Corsican problem by presenting voters with a half-baked and inadequately explained reform.
"Right till the end, all the messages were mixed," noted the daily newspaper La Tribune of Raffarin's difficulty in explaining that the reform's aim was to undermine claims for full independence by offering a diluted dose of devolution.
"A defeat for the Raffarin-Sarkozy duo," the daily newspaper Les Echos said, adding any political capital won by Raffarin for facing down last month's strike movement against his pension reform would be lost if his decentralization plans went up in smoke.
Polls regularly show a majority of Corsicans have a strong attachment to the French mainland but, like millions of other French, nurture a dislike of Paris interfering in local matters.
Four unoccupied villas on the island were hit by bombs Monday night the latest in a recent spate of attacks on property owned by non-Corsicans.