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Chirac warns Jospin over Corsica autonomy

PARIS -- French conservative President Jacques Chirac warned his Socialist-led government on Tuesday that he would not let its plans to give Corsica unprecedented autonomous powers harm the unity of the nation.

In his first comment on the deal reached last month between Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and Corsican nationalists, Chirac acknowledged reforms were needed to restore peace on the Mediterranean island racked by separatist violence.

"The reforms, desirable and necessary as they be, must respect the principles of our Republic and its unity of which the President of the Republic is the guarantor," Chirac told a cabinet meeting, according to his office.

"Your assessment was expected and you have given it. I have nothing to add," Jospin replied, according to his spokesman.

In a break with tradition in one of the European Union's most centralised countries, Jospin's peace plan envisages giving the island limited legislative powers within four years.

The issue could lead to confrontation in the delicate power-sharing between Chirac and the Socialist Jospin, and as a major issue in the campaign for the 2002 presidential election in which they are expected to face each other.

Chirac's RPR neo-Gaullist party said the president had "put a stop to a dangerous drift." It called for the Corsican accord to be clarified and put to parliament as soon as possible. Parliament is expected to debate it after the summer.

The accord also pits Jospin against Interior Minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement, a militant leftist and nationalist who has said he would not speak for it in parliament.

Amid opposition calls for Chevenement to resign or be sacked, Jospin and Chevenement agreed at the weekend to review their dispute later, averting a possible cabinet reshuffle.

Chevenement has already twice resigned from the cabinet, as industry minister in 1983 in a dispute over economic policies, and as defence minister in 1991 at the height of the Gulf War.

Chevenement has said that the real goal of Corsican nationalists, who have refused to condemn a two-decade campaign of bombings by separatists, was independence from France.

The Corsican accord, which will need a constitutional reform, will give the island's assembly the power by 2004 to adapt laws passed by the National Assembly in Paris.

Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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