French opposition to EU treaty intensifies

Hostility to the European Union constitution is hardening in France, despite increasingly desperate attempts by government and opposition leaders to rescue the collapsing "yes" vote before the referendum next month.

An opinion poll published yesterday showed that 55 per cent of French voters who had reached a decision were likely to reject the proposed new EU treaty in the vote on 29 May.

Worryingly for the "yes" camp, the latest survey - the sixth in a row to predict a "no" vote - shows an erosion of support for the treaty on the centre-right and a hardening of attitudes on the left.

Senior political figures admit privately it may be impossible to turn around the extraordinary momentum gained by the no vote over the past three weeks. Efforts by the centre-right government last week to bribe public sector workers with an inflation-linked pay rise have had no immediate impact. Neither have dire warnings from President Jacques Chirac and others that a no would plunge European and French domestic politics into deep crisis. He will make his first major contribution to the campaign in a live television debate on Thursday

The yes camp, which includes the government and the leadership of the main opposition party, the Socialists, is struggling to inspire, or scare, undecided voters. The no camp, particularly on the left, is making all the running with a series of blood-chilling - and often vastly exaggerated - warnings about the impact of the treaty on French jobs and public services.

In the poll published by Le Journal du Dimanche, a majority of Socialist voters said they opposed the treaty, despite an internal party referendum in favour last December.

Left-wing hostility to the treaty is due in part to a determination to "punish" the centre-right government. But many moderate left-wing voters have been won over to the more radical left, which says the treaty is an "Anglo-Saxon" plot to impose free market economics on the Continent.

The proposed constitution is aimed at making the enlarged 25-member union more manageable. It must be ratified by all members, and rejection by France - a large, founder member - would be instantly fatal.

The Socialist president of the European Parliament, Josep Borrell, warned yesterday that if France rejected the treaty, it could be 20 years before the EU was able to agree a constitution.

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