Chirac announces surprise vote on EU constitution

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The Independent Online

President Jacques Chirac wrong-footed both his opponents and his allies yesterday by announcing that he would hold a referendum next year on the proposed new European Union constitution.

President Jacques Chirac wrong-footed both his opponents and his allies yesterday by announcing that he would hold a referendum next year on the proposed new European Union constitution.

M. Chirac was speaking during a television interview for the 14 July national holiday, which saw a large contingent of British soldiers and war-planes join the traditional military display on the Champs Elysées for the first time.

He said the French people had a right to decide whether they accepted the new relationship with the EU negotiated in Brussels. "The French people are concerned directly, and will therefore be consulted directly - and so there will be a referendum, which will be held ... next year," he said. France is therefore likely to leap-frog Britain and become the first of the large EU countries to hold a popular vote on the European constitution, which has to be ratified by all 25 countries within the next two years.

With his, and his Prime Minister's, poll ratings at a low ebb, some of M. Chirac's allies and advisers had argued against an EU referendum, which might be turned into a protest vote against the centre-right government.

Recent polls suggest that more than 60 per cent of French people approve of the new EU rules but this figure could deflate rapidly if the electorate feels the need to give the government another kicking.

Unlike Britain, however, the proposed streamlining of EU decision-making is more unpopular on the French left and centre-left than on the French centre-right. All Communists and some Socialists see the constitution as a dagger aimed at the French welfare state. M. Chirac appears to have calculated that a referendum campaign is likely to prove disastrous for a Socialist party, whose leaders are deeply divided on whether or not to support the new European rules.

Under the French constitution, the treaty could be ratified by a two-thirds vote of both houses of parliament sitting together, or by a popular vote.

Despite the divisions on the left, M. Chirac is taking a considerable gamble. His own centre-right "family" in French politics has been split down the middle by the ambitions of Nicolas Sarkozy, the Finance Minister, who is expected to defy the President and attempt to seize the leadership of the main centre-right party, the UMP, in the autumn.

In his starkest public warning to M. Sarkozy to date, M. Chirac said in his television interview yesterday that he would "terminate the functions" of any minister who became the leader of a political party.

Earlier, the President, accompanied by Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, took the salute at the 14 July military parade, which was led by the Queen's Company of the Grenadier Guards in full red-coat and bearskin regalia. As part of the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Entente Cordiale, the parade was an Anglo-French affair with the Household Cavalry and the Royal Horse Artillery joining mounted French troops and the RAF Red Arrows display team concluding the fly-past.

A larger crowd of Parisians and tourists than usual turned out but more than two thirds of them were disappointed to find that they saw nothing of the red coats and bearskins. The foot soldiers and cavalry missed out the greatest part of the avenue and marched only the last couple of hundreds metres to the Place de la Concorde. Only the mechanised soldiers paraded the whole route from the Arc de Triomphe.

This is the usual pattern for the parade (scripted for television rather than live spectators). Many spectators felt bitterly let down, however. "Where are the British? I came to see the British," said Sylvie, 46, staring instead at an uninspiring, military traffic jam of hardware ranging from rocket launchers to bulldozers painted in camouflage colours. "No one told us that the British would only march a short distance."