The battle for Europe: France and Holland prepare to vote on constitution

As France and the Netherlands prepare to vote on the EU constitution, the 'yes' camps are lagging. Can they win through in the final few days?
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Welcome to market day in Yutz, a small industrial town in Lorraine, close to the German border. Stalls are piled high with French cheeses, French sausages and Chinese T-shirts. Two Socialist campaigners for a "yes" vote in the referendum on the EU constitution cheerfully hand out leaflets. A tall man in his seventies, wearing a gaily coloured shirt, contemptuously pushes the leaflets aside. "You wait," he says, "until your job goes to a Pole or a Hindu ... You are a traitor. I hope you can sleep at night."

Lorraine was the seed-bed of the European dream; a province fought over for centuries, blood-soaked territory at the heart of the Franco-German reconciliation of the 1950s.

This part of Lorraine - Moselle - was the fiefdom of Robert Schuman, French foreign and prime minister in the late 1940s and a founding father of the EEC, the Common Market. Moselle, and Saarland across the border, were cornerstones of the Coal and Steel Community of 1950, the forerunner of the EU.

Here, of all places in France, you might expect to find the European ideal would be alive and well; that there would be a strong sense of European identity or allegiance. If so, think again.

Six days before next Sunday's French referendum on the EU constitution, Lorraine is bad-tempered, anguished, and above all confused, about the choices it must make.

Families are split down the middle; the political parties of the centre-left are torn apart.

In Lorraine, as in the wider France, polls suggest that electors could vote narrowly against the treaty. Polls also suggest the Dutch may reject the constitution three days later, for different reasons. The French campaign, in particular is being watched in Britain, and across Europe, with - depending on point of view - dread, puzzlement or anticipation. Whether you are pro or anti-European, French voters - specifically, a few thousand, volatile or undecided swing voters on the French centre-left - hold our future in their hands.

A French "no" would, in effect, wreck hopes of pushing the European project into a new phase: with more direct democratic control, a stronger foreign and defence policy and a simpler system of decision-making, to allow for last year's expansion to 25 nations, including eight from the former Communist bloc. Many people fear that a French "no" would unleash a cascade of rejections in other countries, which could destabilise, even unravel, the existing union, including the single European market.

"No" campaigners in France, on both the left and the right, say a rejection would allow the creation of a "different Europe". But what kind of Europe? How could anyone reconcile the desires of the French far-left for an anti-American, protectionist-welfarist Europe, and the yearning of the xenophobic far-right to return to the nation states of the 1930s and rebuild all the European frontier posts? Neither approach would appeal to the Dutch or British nor a majority of the 24 other nations in the EU.

Nevertheless, the most recent opinion poll in France yesterday showed a 52 per cent majority against the constitution: the sixth poll in a row to point to a "no". The Ifop poll for the Journal du Dimanche detected, however, a vague shift in opinion back towards the "oui". One in four likely voters remains undecided.

Over the next week, The Independent plans a "tour de France", to test the mood across the nation which was at the origins of the EU. For reasons of history and sociology, we chose to start in Lorraine. Thionville, Yutz and their surrounds are still partly German-speaking. They are heavily dependent on the 40,000 people who commute daily to jobs over the border in Luxembourg and Germany. Many on the French left challenge the whole basis - free trade and open competition between nations and companies - on which the EU has been built for the past 47 years. Where better then to start our tour than in a market in Lorraine? An old man wearing a clichéd black beret and carrying a plastic shopping bag, turned out to be a semi-retired priest, Père Gérard, 73. "When I was at school during the last war, I was taught German and English, not French. Between 1940 and 1944, this area was declared part of Nazi Germany and to speak French in Thionville was against the law," Père Gérard said.

"So of course, as a man of peace, and a child of the war generation, I will vote 'yes' next Sunday. The European Union has brought us 50 years of peace. It is now healing the terrible, unjust division in Europe between east and west.

"Of course I will vote 'yes'. But the younger people of Lorraine? I am not so sure."

Alain, 34, a man trying to sell wooden and straw chairs at €40 (£27) a time - no takers - was a definite "no". "Ever since we have had the euro, everyone goes to the big supermarkets," he said. "No one comes to a small market like this any more."

Other shoppers pointed to the rows of Chinese-made T-shirts and dresses on the racks. "Everything is upside down," one man said. "Who can you trust? I don't know who to believe any more."

A victory for the "no" camp will be presented as a popular revolt against the French "élite". There is some truth in this argument. The opinion polls show that the "no" voters - or "nonistes" - are heavily concentrated in the working class, among the less educated, in rural areas, in the deep south, and in the struggling former heavy industrial regions of the north and east, such as Moselle.

The pro-treaty forces - the "ouiistes" - are stronger in Paris, in the successful towns of the west and south-west, and among the professional classes.

There is a problem, however, with the "people versus the élite" argument. Each French government since 1981 has been accused of failing to deliver "change". Any government which has attempted to make even tentative reforms - like the present, hugely unpopular, centre-right government of Jean-Pierre Raffarin - has been destabilised by protests, supported directly or indirectly by a majority.

This obstructionism - on which the nonistes have skilfully drawn - is not just rooted in "despair" or failure: it is rooted in a corporatist defence of self-interest, especially in the huge French public sector on which 10 million people depend.

The referendum campaign has also tapped a deep well of Euro-scepticism and Euro-ignorance in France. The "yes" campaign has been mostly uninspiring, along the lines of "you have no choice". The French establishment has also paid the price for overselling the likely benefits of the euro - benefits, which, with 10 per cent unemployment, remain invisible to most.

At the same time, the nonistes of the left have cynically exploited the lack of Euro-knowledge to peddle a series of untruths about the treaty. The constitution, they say, would end the right of people to have abortions, get divorced, to separate state and religion and run farming co-operatives. All are nonsense.

The most successful distortion of all has been the drumbeat by the miserabilist far-left and anti-treaty centre-left, complaining the constitution is an "ultra-liberal", Anglo-Saxon, hard capitalist plot.

Almost all the evidence cited comes from treaty articles on competition and trade which have been copied out from the 1957 Treaty of Rome - a treaty which the "Anglo-Saxon" British refused to sign and which helped produce the French economic boom of the 1960s.

Bernard Tarillon, 52, a history and geography teacher and Socialist activist for the "yes" campaign, was one of the people handing out leaflets in Yutz market. He said he believed it was dawning on many of the centre-left that they were being tricked by the "no" camp. If they rejected the constitution, they would lose - perhaps forever - the language about a "social market", public services and human rights in parts one and two of the treaty.

The EU would then fall back on its existing treaties - exactly the commitments to "competition" and "free trade" which the leftish nonistes claim to have been shocked to find in the constitution's third section.

"I think that a breeze is starting to blow through people's minds," M. Tarillon said.

"Talking to opinion pollsters, they are lashing out, like the French do in the first round of a presidential election. Once they get into the polling booth, it will be like the second round. A sense of responsibility will come over them. They know that the whole of Europe is watching."

Maybe. Before leaving Lorraine, I spoke to one of Robert Schuman's former right-hand men, Jean Seitlinger, 80, a retired local MP. "I think that Schuman would have been very disappointed that, after half a century, the European idea has not penetrated deeper into people's minds," M. Seitlinger said.

"The old national hatreds have largely gone. We no longer fear a European civil war. But far from making people grateful for Europe, it has made them take it for granted."

Tomorrow: Stage Two, the Ile de France.