France drafts Europe's leaders, but not Blair, to plead for 'yes' vote

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The Independent Online

Europe's heavy political artillery - with the notable exception of anyone from the British Government - has deployed in France in an attempt to bombard voters into supporting the EU constitution in nine days' time.

Europe's heavy political artillery - with the notable exception of anyone from the British Government - has deployed in France in an attempt to bombard voters into supporting the EU constitution in nine days' time.

With polls still showing the "no" camp marginally ahead, the German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder begged the French "from the bottom of my heart" to vote for the treaty. Speaking after a Franco-German-Polish summit in Nancy in eastern France yesterday, he urged French voters to face up to their "responsibilities".

The previous night, leading left-wing politicians from half a dozen countries - but not Britain - joined a left-wing rally for "yes" in central Paris.

The absence of anyone from the Blair government was deliberate. The "no" camp on the French left - who hold the key to the swing votes in the referendum - regard Blairism as only marginally less evil than Bushism or Thatcherism. The presence of a senior British figure would have harmed, rather than helped, the leadership of the Parti Socialiste's chances of persuading their electorate to vote "yes".

The rally in the Cirque d'Hiver or winter circus was attended by the Spanish Socialist Josep Borrell, president of the European Parliament, the German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, the former Portuguese president Mario Soares, and Dutch, Belgian, Danish, Polish, Romanian and Bulgarian politicians.

Speaker after speaker poured scorn on the suggestion - argued by the French far left and taken up by part of the Socialist and Green centre left - that the proposed treaty is a hard capitalist blueprint for destroying public services and exporting French jobs to Eastern Europe. They also took exception to anxieties fomented on the left - taking up an issue dearer to the far right - that France will be inundated by Eastern European workers.

"Don't be scared of the Polish plumber, just as you used to be scared - without reason - of the Portuguese bricklayer. Don't try to punish your [centre-right] government by kicking Europe in the bottom," Mr Borrell said.

Other speakers pointed out that part of the French left was out of step with all its European "brothers and sisters" in rejecting the treaty. Within the European trade union movement, only two organisations have condemned the proposed constitution - both of them French. All others have welcomed it as an advance towards acceptance of union rights and the principle of a "social market" at European level. Mr Schröder said that he respected the sovereign right of France to make its own decision on the treaty. However, he added that France from the beginning had had a "large responsibility" for the European project. He urged French voters not to abandon these responsibilities.

The French far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen - a relatively muted figure in a campaign which is going his way - attacked the influx of European leaders as a "monstrous indecency". French voters should be allowed to make up their own minds, he said, without being told how to vote by foreigners.

The last four opinion polls have suggested that the "no" camp has retaken the lead in a referendum campaign which has see-sawed for the past six weeks. But all the polls agree that the key voters - those who change their opinion with each poll or have yet to make up their minds - are concentrated on the centre left.

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