French are accused of a 'masterpiece of masochism' as the recriminations begin

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The Independent Online

From Paris to Madrid to Belgrade, the aftershocks from Sunday's result were felt all over Europe. While the prevailing attitude outside France was one of amazement, to many of those within the country, it felt more like despair.

"A masterpiece of masochism," the French daily Libération cried, denouncing the "pain, fear, anguish and rage", which led so many on the left to reject the EU constitution.

The result, claimed the weekly news magazine Nouvel Observateur, was as much of a blow to France as the general election three years ago that propelled the far-right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen into second place in front of the Socialists.

"May 29 is the aftershock from April 21, 2002," the magazine writes. "It's a new political tremor which, like its predecessor, is going to provoke the same reactions in Europe and over the world. The same shock, the same incomprehension, the same recriminations."

Alas for France, one look at yesterday's newspapers proved they had already begun - especially in countries whose ratification of the treaty may ultimately count for nothing.

"This was a black Sunday for the EU - and for the whole of Europe!" screamed Germany's popular tabloidBild.

"We are returning, then, to the era of national egoism and the defence of self-interest as opposed to compromise and solidarity," bemoaned Spain'sEl Mundo. "Bad news for Europe and for Spain."

Similarly impatient, the Italian daily La Stampa took a dig at the French national character, declaring that, "every so often in its history, the French people absolutely refuse to listen to reason and revolt, killing the king".

There was no official statement from the White House as the US was taking a holiday for Memorial Day. But David Ignatius, the celebrated Washington Post columnist, was scathing in his criticism of President Jacques Chirac who, he claims, "richly deserves the scorn coming his way".

"Chirac's real failure was his inability over two terms as president to level with the French people about the changes that are needed to protect the way of life they cherish," Ignatius remarked.

"He played games with economic reform - tiptoeing up to the edge and then pulling back at any sign of public displeasure."

Reaction to the "no" vote also provoked concern in countries fearing the result would put on hold - or even put off for good - their bids for EU membership.

Fears are mounting in Balkan states that accession talks will be stalled, despite assurances from their own leaders that, as Vuk Draskovic, the Foreign Minister of Serbia-Montenegro, said: "A hole in the western Balkans is not in the interest of the EU." But Gordana Ilic, a Belgrade-based professor of law, said: "The EU will now be dealing with itself and its own problems and will be less oriented towards the east."

However, there were cheerful faces in Europe, particularly among leading lights of the continent's far right parties.

"The bureaucrats in Brussels have miscalculated," declared a gleeful Jörg Haider of Austria's Freedom Party. "They have to find a consensus with the citizenry of Europe. This is an opportunity. I do not see it so tragically."

In France, too, the extreme right was rejoicing. "We now have to propose a presidential project because we're now on the presidential campaign," said Marine Le Pen, looking ahead to the 2007 election.

And the reaction of the neutral Swiss smacked rather of "I told you so" schadenfreude.

Hans-Rudolf Merz, the Finance Minister, welcomed the French rejection as a confirmation of Switzerland's cautious approach to the European project.

"European integration that goes beyond economy and security stumbles at its borders," he said.