A French 'no' to EU will delight British, Chirac tells voters

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A French Non to the EU constitution will "boomerang" against France and delight "Anglo-Saxon" opponents of a powerful Europe, President Jacques Chirac said.

A French Non to the EU constitution will "boomerang" against France and delight "Anglo-Saxon" opponents of a powerful Europe, President Jacques Chirac said.

In his first major contribution to France's increasingly sour EU referendum campaign, President Chirac made it clear that, if the country votes "no", he will ignore the precedent set by his political idol Charles de Gaulle and refuse to resign.

Debating with 83 young people in a two-hour television political chat show, M. Chirac put up a spirited - if often vague - defence of the proposed new European Union constitution.

France's voice in Europe would be "silenced" and "Anglo-Saxon" enemies of the EU - in both Britain and America - would be delighted if the French reject a constitution "largely inspired by France and French values," he said.

Far from being a surrender to "liberal" (ie capitalist) values, as left-wing opponents claim, President Chirac said that the constitution enshrined the French view that market forces were essential but should be "organised" and "humanised".

He begged the young people invited to the debate at the Elysée Palace - and French voters generally - to "have no fear". France loved to dwell on its problems, he said, but the country had no reason to "plunge into pessimism" and fear that it would lose economically or politically from the constitution.

"We can always say 'let's reject all that' but please realise that won't solve any of our problems," he said. "You will weaken considerably the voice of France and its capacity to defend its interests. That's what I call a 'boomerang effect'."

In 13 consecutive opinion polls in the past month, French voters have said that they are planning to reject the EU constitution in a referendum on 29 May. A French Non would in effect wreck the treaty and leave the enlarged EU to struggle on with its existing system of decision-making.

Opposition to the treaty is especially strong on the left. In part this is a protest vote against 10 per cent unemployment, President Chirac and the floundering centre-right government of Jean-Pierre Raffarin.

But even many moderate left-wing voters have been persuaded that - quite contrary to the Eurosceptic arguments deployed in Britain - the proposed constitution is an "ultra-liberal", Thatcherite blue-print for savage competition and destruction of public services.

M. Chirac's audience expressed doubts and confusion about the text. Even those who were broadly pro-treaty, said that - on reading it - they could not grasp its central point or understand much of the detail.

One young woman asked M. Chirac to give "two or three concrete" examples of how the constitution would benefit France. M. Chirac struggled to give a simple answer. He mentioned a boom in French trade with eastern Europe; the fact that the treaty would enshrine women's rights; and would increase co-operation against international crime.

But he kept coming back to his central message: France had nothing to fear; this was a French text, hated by "les Anglo Saxons".

M. Chirac was asked if he would follow the example General de Gaulle, who resigned as president in 1969 after losing a referendum on regional government. President Chirac said that he could reply to that question in one word: Non.