Chirac considers early vote on EU after Socialist 'yes'

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The Independent Online

President Jacques Chirac was considering bringing forward the date of France's national referendum on the EU constitution yesterday after a resounding victory for the "yes" camp in a pivotal internal vote within the opposition Socialist Party.

President Jacques Chirac was considering bringing forward the date of France's national referendum on the EU constitution yesterday after a resounding victory for the "yes" camp in a pivotal internal vote within the opposition Socialist Party.

France may now vote on the European treaty as early as next April or May - just before or during the expected general election in Britain. The 58 per cent to 42 per cent victory for " oui" among the 120,000 members of the Parti Socialiste makes popular approval in France more likely - although not a foregone conclusion.

M. Chirac, who had originally promised a national referendum in the second half of next year, is under pressure to call a poll in the spring, to make use of the momentum from the Socialist vote.

A "yes" vote in a national referendum in France in April or early May might well be used by British Eurosceptics as ammunition against Tony Blair, who has promised a British referendum if he is re-elected.

The Socialist Party is now committed to campaigning for a "yes" in the national referendum, alongside M. Chirac's centre-right UMP party and the centrist UDF. Both the far right and the far left fiercely oppose the treaty.

If the Socialist vote had gone the other way, France might well have voted "no" next year, dooming the painfully negotiated treaty which streamlines decision-making in the enlarged Union and gives it a constitution for the first time.

The solid Socialist " oui" consolidates the position of François Hollande, 50, as the party's leader and increases his chances of winning the centre-left "nomination" in the next presidential race in 2007.

The vote, on an almost 80 per cent turnout, in effect terminates the front-rank political career of the former prime minister Laurent Fabius, the number two in the Parti Socialiste and the only senior figure in the party to campaign for "no". M. Fabius, 58, previously a devout European, argued that the treaty - by allowing huge discrepancies between national tax regimes and by enshrining the principles of competition and the free market - would make it impossible to pursue red-blooded socialist policies in France. He was widely suspected of using the issue to try to catapult himself into position as Socialist presidential candidate in 2007.

Leading article, page 38

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