Chirac says decision on poll for France is 'premature'

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The Independent Online

The French President Jacques Chirac said yesterday he had not yet decided whether to put the European Union constitution to a referendum, despite pressure from his party.

Tony Blair's stance in favour of a referendum - which he outlined in an article in Wednesday's Le Monde - was being seen by the media in France as proof that the Prime Minister has admitted defeat on Europe because Britain is perceived as unlikely to approve a European constitution.

In London, the former French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing warned that Britain risked being "on the edge" of Europe if the British people voted "no" in a referendum on the constitution.

But he expressed surprise and delight at Mr Blair's sudden U-turn on holding a national referendum. M. Giscard d'Estaing, who presided over the convention that drew up the European constitution, said: "We must not try to organise Europe against the people. That is a false approach."

At a press conference at the Elysée Palace yesterday, M. Chirac did not mention Britain. He said: "It's premature to decide which option to use - the parliamentary process or a referendum - to ratify [a constitution]." On the euro, M. Chirac had promised a referendum before he was elected in 1995 but that was never carried out.

M. Chirac showed himself to be more reluctant than Mr Blair on the subject of Turkish membership of the EU.

He said: "I am convinced that Turkey is intent on joining Europe but it doesn't yet meet the criteria of entry."

He said negotiations over Turkey's entry - which is "desirable, long term" - will be "long, very long - they will last 10 years or maybe more".

He criticised the European Commission for calling for a bigger contribution from France while criticising its budget deficit.

M. Chirac said: "You have noticed that six countries among the 15 - including France - have signed a letter to the president to point out that the commission went too far as concerns the budget, and that the limit [of contributions] should be set at 1 per cent of gross industrial product."

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