President Jacques Chirac warned French voters last night they had the "destiny" of France in their hands when they vote on the EU constitution this weekend.
A French "no" would leave France weakened within Europe and Europe weakened within a menacing world, M. Chirac said in a solemn address on radio and TV.
With opinion polls still predicting the country will vote "no" on Sunday, M. Chirac made a last throw of the dice to save the EU treaty, his own credibility and his presidential legacy. He also promised he would give a "a new impetus" to his actions next week, whatever the outcome of the vote. This was a clear signal that he plans to replace the desperately unpopular prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin.
Just before M. Chirac spoke, his former protégé and rival for leadership of the French right, Nicolas Sarkozy, admitted on television he was experiencing "family difficulties". He accused political rivals of stooping to "low blows" by propagating a rumour that his marriage was in trouble. M. Sarkozy denied he had had an extra-marital affair. He said his "family, like many others, had had difficulties, which we are overcoming. Should I say more? I don't think so".
In his 10-minute address to the nation only his third direct intervention in the campaign M. Chirac said a French "no" would "open a period of divisions, doubts and uncertainties in Europe".
France would lose its position of leadership and influence, he said. The Franco-German alliance, which was the "motor" of the EU, would be broken. The way would be left clear for "those who have an ultra-liberal vision of Europe, who wish Europe to become simply an area of free trade, with no political power and no independence [from the United States]".
This was a clear reference to Britain, seen by the French Left which holds the key to the outcome of Sunday's poll as a propagator of extreme capitalist ideas and American values within Europe. M. Chirac said there had been "an exemplary, democratic debate" in France. Each voter now "holds a part of the destiny of France in his or her hands", he added. The sense of resignation that has spread through the "yes" camp deepened yesterday after the publication of an 11th successive poll putting the "no" vote ahead.
The study, for the newspaper Le Monde, showed the "no" currently leading by 54 per cent, up 1 per cent on a survey by the same group last week. Key figures in the French government have already publicly resigned themselves to a rejection of the treaty and have begun to prepare for the political aftermath.
M. Sarkozy, the leader of the ruling UMP Party and a likely rival to M. Chirac in the next presidential contest, delivered the most pessimistic outlook this week. Whilst a week ago he spoke of the possibility of a "small yes", he now reportedly maintains it is no longer a question of a "yes" or "no", just "a small no or big no".
M. Sarkozy privately expects the "no" to take 54 or 55 per cent of the vote, according to yesterday's Le Parisien newspaper. But his spokesman denied that he had said that the vote was already lost.
Several other members of the "yes" campaign have conceded a negative result looks increasingly likely. Even M. Raffarin, who has continued to insist the 20 per cent of French voters who have not yet made up their minds could turn the vote around, seems to have steeled himself for a defeat. His unpopularity has been cited as a contributing factor in the popularity of the "no", and jostling over his successor has begun.
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