'Oui' camp fails to muster late rally as French voters prepare to reject treaty

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The Independent Online

France appears certain to deliver a resounding "non" to the proposed European Union constitution tomorrow, plunging French, and EU, politics into deep crisis. Far from narrowing in the final hours, as supporters of the treaty had hoped, the lead of the "non" camp in the last legally publishable polls increased yesterday to 10 points (55 per cent to 45 per cent).

EU leaders may, for the sake of form, decide to press ahead with the ratification schedule in other countries but a French "non" would, in effect, kill the constitution stone dead.

Such a decision by a founding member state at the heart of the EU will lead to a prolonged crisis of political and economic confidence in Europe and - more immediately - a period of chaos and political blood-letting in France.

There was already a smell of brimstone and the sound of tumbrils in the air. Nicolas Sarkozy, the rising star of the French centre-right, complained on television on Thursday night that "low blows" had been struck by rivals who circulated rumours that his marriage was on the rocks. Those rivals are unlikely to have been on the left but are more likely to be within his own camp on the centre-right.

At the same time the Socialist leader, François Hollande, is certain to face a challenge next week from the anti-free market left of his party if the "non" wins. The unpopular Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, will almost certainly be fired by President Jacques Chirac on Monday, whatever the outcome of the poll.

President Chirac, 71, has said that he has no plans to resign, but rejection of the constitution - originally his idea - would reduce him to the lamest of ducks for the last two years of his term and finally signal the end of his 38-year political career.

A "no" vote would mean that a majority of French voters had repudiated the leaders of all mainstream parties of the centre-rightand centre-left, and the mainstream print media. The basis of French politics and diplomacy for the past 50 years would have been overturned.

In practice, this would mostly have been a rebellion by the centre-left, the political "family" of passionate pro-Europeans such as Jacques Delors, the former European Commission chief, and the late President François Mitterrand. The centre-right has remained solidly pro-treaty. The far left and far right have always been virulently anti-EU.

The latest polls show that no fewer than 58 per cent of Socialist voters and 70 per cent of Greens will vote "non" tomorrow, against official party policy. Centre-left voters have been persuaded, during a rumbustious and muddling campaign, that the constitution would take the EU into anti-social, "ultra-liberal", hard-capitalist territory, destroying French public services and shipping French jobs to the new member states in eastern Europe. This argument has largely been based on language - "free and fair competition ... free movement of people, goods and services" - which has been in every European treaty since 1957.

Despite a warning from M. Chirac in a television and radio address on Thursday that a "no" vote would damage France and Europe, leaders of the uninspired "yes" campaign seemed finally to have given up hope.

Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's Prime Minister, yesterday joined the chorus of European leaders urging the French to vote "yes".

Opinion polls in France have proved fallible in the past, but usually in the first round of presidential or parliamentary elections when a confusing jumble of political parties is competing. The polls are unlikely to have so misread the answer to a yes-no question. The trend towards the "no" in the past week has been stark. The last hope of the "yes" camp is that the one in five French voters who were still "undecided" this week will all crowd into the voting booths and pick up pro-treaty ballot papers. Odd things happen in French politics but that would require a miracle.

The proposed constitution is intended to simplify EU decision-making and give more influence to the European and national parliaments. It would create an elected European Council president and an EU foreign minister. A new legal basis would be created for EU defence, foreign and environment policies. An EU charter of basic rights would be incorporated into European law for the first time.

It has been criticised by the far right and sovereigntist centre-right in France along the same lines as Eurosceptic attacks in the UK. They allege that it would lay the basis for a European super-state. The real damage has been inflicted from the left, partly by the far left but also by Socialists, such as the former prime minister Laurent Fabius. They have persuaded voters that the free market language in the treaty would freeze for ever any hope of pursuing Socialist policies in France.

The former president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing and the Socialist leader, M. Hollande, have suggested that if France votes "no", it should be asked to vote again next year. The hope is that, if all other EU countries ratify the treaty, French voters would not want to isolate themselves a second time. In practice, a French "non" is likely to bring a cascade of rejections starting with the Dutch referendum next Wednesday.