Chirac warns Blair of blow to EU dream

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Tony Blair and other European leaders are awaiting a decision next week by a few thousand French Socialists which could destroy the European Union constitution - and save the Prime Minister the humiliation of defeat in a British referendum on the document.

Tony Blair and other European leaders are awaiting a decision next week by a few thousand French Socialists which could destroy the European Union constitution - and save the Prime Minister the humiliation of defeat in a British referendum on the document.

President Jacques Chirac warned Tony Blair when he visited London last week - just as he has warned other EU leaders in recent days - that there is now a strong possibility that France will reject the proposed European constitution when it votes in a referendum next year. "If the vote was held today, we would lose it," Mr Chirac has been telling anxious visitors and telephone callers from other European capitals.

A French "non" would be an even greater humiliation for Mr Chirac than a British "no" for Mr Blair. The President's pessimism is based on assessments by the French security services, and by Mr Chirac's own sensitive political antennae, of the likely outcome of a ballot of members of the 120,000 members of the Parti Socialiste on 1 December.

France's main opposition party - created by the passionately pro-European François Mitterrand - is split down the middle on the new treaty, which streamlines EU decision-making and gives Europe its own constitution for the first time. The party's first secretary, François Hollande, has been campaigning around the country for a "yes" vote. His number two, the former prime minister and finance minister Laurent Fabius, a man with a reputation as a moderate and a convinced European, has been pleading for a "no".

If the party's 120,000 "militants", or card-carrying members, vote on 1 December to commit the Socialist Party to campaign for a "non", it is difficult to see how President Chirac could win the nationwide referendum, expected in the second half of next year.

Other, more extreme left-wing parties in France have already rejected the constitution as an Anglo-Saxon, ultra-capitalist conspiracy that would destroy the European "welfare state" model and outlaw any attempt to adopt "true" socialist policies. The far-right National Front, and parts of Mr Chirac's own moderate right, condemn the constitution in much the same terms as British Eurosceptics, as an erosion of national sovereignty and an invitation to statist interference in the economy.

If France does vote "non", the treaty - painfully negotiated over two years, under the chairmanship of a former French president, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing - would be a dead letter. It is inconceivable that other EU countries could implement the new arrangements, excluding or marginalising a country like France, which is politically, economically and historically part of Europe's "core".

The vote by the grassroots members of the French Socialist Party could decide the fate of the European constitution, plunging the European Union and its population of 460 million into crisis long before British voters are given a chance to say "yes" or "no", probably in the first half of 2006.

The argument within the Socialist Party has turned into a miniature national election campaign in recent days, with stump meetings generating loud music and mutual accusations of lies and dirty tricks. The outcome could decide not only the likely French vote on the constitution but the direction and leadership of the French Socialists for years to come.

The "yes" camp suspects Mr Fabius of joining the "no" campaign as a populist ploy to boost his chances of emerging as the Socialist candidate in the next presidential election in 2007. He says that he rejects the treaty as a convinced European, not a Eurosceptic.

In its present form, he says, the constitution allows disparate tax policies in the 25 nations which will unfairly attract jobs to the low-tax countries (eastern Europe, Britain and Ireland) and, ultimately, wreck both the welfare state and the European single market.

Mr Hollande, leader of the Socialist Party, says that nothing in the constitution changes the economic rules and conditions which French centre-left governments have lived with, and even welcomed, since 1981. Rejection of the treaty would not open the way to something better, he argues, but would fatally weaken, or even destroy, the European dream, ending hopes that the EU could one day become a powerful counterweight to the United States.

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