Blair prepares for France to vote 'non'

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair is to embark on a heavy round of international diplomacy next week, as hopes fade that the French might change their minds at the last minute and accept the planned EU constitution.

Tony Blair is to embark on a heavy round of international diplomacy next week, as hopes fade that the French might change their minds at the last minute and accept the planned EU constitution.

Voting began yesterday in the French territories in a referendum that could determine the future of Europe for years to come. Mr Blair is expected to make a statement tomorrow, after the result is known, and is likely to put on hold any plan for the UK to sign up to the proposed constitution.

A Downing Street spokesman said yesterday: "Under no circumstances will we sign any constitutional treaty without a referendum - and we'll have that referendum if there is a constitution on which to vote." Mr Blair will hold talks with his French and German counterparts before the problem of the EU's future lands on his desk on 1 July, when Britain takes over the six-month presidency of the EU.

With metropolitan France expected to give a firm "non" in voting today, President Jacques Chirac was facing accusations of a fatal miscalculation in staging a final appeal on television last week for his country to back the constitution. Since the outcome was expected to be decided by centre-left voters, his appearance, urging a "oui" vote "for the future of France", simply reminded the public of his personal unpopularity and that of his government, according to his critics.

Opinion polling is banned in the final 24 hours of campaigning, but four final polls published on Friday night put the anti-constitution camp in the lead. There was a glimmer of hope for "yes" supporters in the CSA poll, which showed the "no" majority narrowing to a 52-48 per cent lead. There was an even smaller lead among those voters polled on Friday, following M. Chirac's solemn warning of calamity.

Three other polls published on Friday put the "non" vote at up to 56 per cent and gaining. All the surveys showed a high proportion of voters still undecided - up to one in five - and many may not turn out.

A French "non" is expected to reinforce the hostility of voters in the Netherlands towards the EU constitution when they vote in a referendum on Wednesday, despite warnings by experienced figures such as Jean-Luc Dehaene, the former Belgian prime minister, that "Europe stands to be put back years". A double rejection of the treaty, by two of the six founding members of the European community, is likely to bring attempts to ratify the document to an end, even though M. Chirac and the European Commission have insisted the process should go on.

Such a result is likely to be greeted with relief in Downing Street, which would face possible defeat in any British referendum. Tony Blair is to announce tomorrow what the Government will do amid speculation that the "non" vote means the UK's plans to hold a vote next year will be abandoned. His spokesman said: "Tony Blair has made it clear he wants people to vote yes ... We will have that referendum if there is a constitution on which to vote."

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