Chirac in TV bid to stave off defeat on EU constitution vote

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The Independent Online

President Jacques Chirac will appear in a controversial, one-off television chat show tonight in an attempt to persuade an increasingly truculent French people to vote for the proposed EU constitution next month.

President Jacques Chirac will appear in a controversial, one-off television chat show tonight in an attempt to persuade an increasingly truculent French people to vote for the proposed EU constitution next month.

With the referendum apparently slipping away from M. Chirac and the "yes" campaign, the stage-managed manner of the President's intervention has itself become a venomous campaign issue.

The President will debate with a hand-picked group of 80 young people, a tame newscaster and three presenters of light entertainment and chat shows.

The style of the programme - chosen by the President's daughter and media adviser, Claude - has been ridiculed by journalists and "no" campaigners of left and right as a plunge into "political marketing" and "infotainment".

Mme Chirac evidently believed something out of the ordinary would catch the attention of a French public which has swung against the EU treaty with only a vague idea of what it contains. The Elysée Palace says the debaters, aged between 18 and 30, represent a cross-section of social backgrounds, political views and attitudes to the EU.

In the past three weeks, 13 consecutive opinion polls have shown French voters are planning to vote against the treaty - by scores ranging from 51 to 54 per cent - in the referendum on 29 May. A French "non" would, in effect, destroy the treaty before it has been considered by most European parliaments or voters.

The most recent polls have indicated a hardening of the "no" vote. In previous surveys most respondents said they would vote "no", yet expected and wanted the "yes" to win. But in three polls this week, most said they wanted the "no" vote to triumph.

The treaty is intended to streamline European decision-making and give the Union a more "visible" face by creating a permanent EU council president and foreign minister. It reinforces the EU's 47-year commitment to open markets but recognises trades union rights and the importance of public services.

The French campaign is becoming increasingly nasty and personal, especially on the left. Danny Cohn-Bendit, the German Green MEP and leader of the left-wing student revolt in France in 1968, was pelted with eggs by far-left treaty opponents while campaigning for a "yes" in Montpellier at the weekend.

Yesterday a hit-squad from the CGT trades union federation cut electricity to the French home in Ramousies of Frits Bolkestein, a Dutch former European commissioner. His plan allowed small and large service providers to cross European borders, which caused an outcry on the French left and was shelved. Last week, he said it was impossible to find a plumber or electrician near his French home and his plan would have allowed "Polish plumbers and electricians" to fill the gap.

A statement by the CGT said their attack was "proof there are plenty of electricians in France". Whether M. Bolkestein will find one to reconnect him is unclear.

The swing against the EU constitution in France has been mostly on the left, ferociously so on the hard left which represents the treaty in lurid terms as an ultra-capitalist plot to destroy public services and make socialism illegal. In the latest polls, even most moderate Socialist and Green voters say they will vote "no", although party leaders campaign for a "yes". In part this is a protest against high unemployment, Mr Chirac and the floundering centre-right government of Jean-Pierre Raffarin. It also shows an increasingly nationalistic, protectionist and anti-capitalist mood among French youth and public sector workers, from teachers to railwaymen.

The referendum will be won and lost on the left.

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