Chirac, Jospin clash on Corsica

 

Rivalry between President Jacques Chirac and the French Prime Minister, Mr Lionel Jospin, escalated into open war yesterday after Mr Chirac cancelled the scheduled discussion of the draft law on Corsican autonomy in the weekly cabinet meeting.

The conflict marks the first time that Mr Chirac has used his power under Article 9 of the French constitution to block the cabinet's consideration of a draft law. Article 9 says "the President of the Republic presides over the council of ministers". But Mr Jospin's office cites Articles 20, 21 and 39, which instruct the government to determine policy and deliberate draft laws.

This unprecedented political manipulation of French institutions is a dangerous step which both men know could backfire. Their advisers yesterday attempted to calm the situation, saying the President wished only to make his views known and would not block legislation. The draft law is expected to be presented to the cabinet within two weeks.

In what Le Monde called "the letterhead paper war", the leaders exchanged brief statements. In view of the reservations about the autonomy plan expressed by the Council of State last week, Mr Chirac asked the government "to re-examine the constitutional difficulties" before the text is discussed.

The Council of State, whose recommendations are not binding, questioned the constitutionality of three points: the mandatory teaching of the Corsican language in schools except where parents specifically request that their children not attend; a 10-year exemption from inheritance tax on property in Corsica; and special legislative powers for the Corsican Assembly.

Mr Jospin responded that his draft law "marks a decisive step in the government's policy on Corsica" and, he noted, it was approved by a large majority in the Corsican Assembly. His wish, he concluded, was that it be discussed soon in the council of ministers.

Mr Jospin has taken the risky step of making Coriscan autonomy an issue in his presidential election battle with Mr Chirac next year. Despite the plan's cold reception last summer - and the resignation of the popular Interior Minister, Mr Jean-Pierre Chevenement - Mr Jospin continues to vaunt Corsican autonomy as a visionary reform, on a par with the 35hour working week or the PACs, which gave legal rights to gay couples.