French voters turn against EU constitution

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The Independent Online

Alarm bells rang through Europe when a poll suggested French voters may throw out the European Union constitution in a referendum on 29 May.

Alarm bells rang through Europe when a poll suggested French voters may throw out the European Union constitution in a referendum on 29 May.

Although this was only one opinion poll, and 10 weeks remain in the campaign, Paris and other EU capitals now face the seemingly unthinkable: that a large, founding member state at the heart of Europe could reject a treaty said to be vital to Europe's future.

A French "no" would, in effect, destroy the constitution negotiated under the chairmanship of a former French president and plunge European, and French domestic politics into deep crisis.

Nicolas Sarkozy, president of the main centre-right party, the UMP (and widely tipped as the next president of the Republic) said yesterday: "If France does vote 'no', Europe will be paralysed and France will be isolated. Both prospects are unacceptable." All previous polls had shown a "yes" vote of 58 per cent or more.

Although this may prove to be a rogue poll and the referendum campaign - especially the "yes" campaign - has hardly begun, the survey suggests at the very least that a strong tide of opinion is now moving towards a "no" vote in France.

The survey reflects deep domestic unrest, a turning away from the political elites of both centre-right and centre-left and a growing alarm that French interests and the French way of doing things may be submerged in the enlarged 25-nation EU.

There has been a drum-beat of complaints on the French left that the EU is imposing an extreme brand of free-market capitalism, focusing in recent days on a confusing spat between Brussels and Paris over an abandoned directive which would have opened EU borders to everyone from plumbers to architects. Paradoxically, all recent surveys show French attitudes towards the European Union remain, generally, overwhelmingly positive.

The poll by the CSA institute, commissioned and published by the Parisien newspaper, showed French left-wing voters especially are moving in large numbers towards a "no" vote. The survey found 51 per cent of those French voters who had made up their minds were tempted to vote "no". On the left, the "no" total was 59 per cent, despite an internal referendum in favour of the treaty in the Socialist Party last December.

More than half of the sample of 800 voters questioned on Wednesday and Thursday said they had not yet made up their minds. Many of the undecided said that they probably would not vote at all.

In part, the "no" vote is driven by domestic issues: the unpopularity of the centre-right government of the Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, high unemployment and a brake on public and private-sector wage increases. But on the French left, these issues interbreed with anxieties about the alleged "ultra-capitalist" drift of the EU. The proposed new EU constitution is seen as an Anglo-Saxon, "ultra-liberal" plot to dismantle the French and continental model of employment protections, public services and the welfare state.

This is the reverse image of the EU treaty presented by British eurosceptics who portray the constitution as a French-inspired blueprint for a socialistic European super-state. President Jacques Chirac came under strong pressure yesterday to abandon his aloofness, or indifference, to the referendum campaign and make a dramatic, public appeal for a "yes" vote. Given M. Chirac's unpopularity on domestic issues, this might not have the effect desired by the "yes" camp.

Much may depend on the attitude of M. Sarkozy. He may see a golden opportunity to seize the initiative from M. Chirac, energise the "yes" campaign and cement his position as the coming man in French politics.