The French are afraid of change. That is why they will vote 'no'

If the polls are right, then France will today vote 'Non' to the proposed new EU constitution. The country that shaped modern Europe will throw the continent's future into confusion. Why? After crossing the country to cover the debate, John Lichfield finds an answer in Carcassonne, where the medieval jostles with the new. France itself, he says, can no longer agree what it wants to be
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From the motorway to Toulouse, you get a fine view of the "medieval" city of Carcassonne. It stands on a hillside, with its pointed turrets and walls intact, seemingly unchanged for centuries.

From the motorway to Toulouse, you get a fine view of the "medieval" city of Carcassonne. It stands on a hillside, with its pointed turrets and walls intact, seemingly unchanged for centuries.

That is not the only Carcassone, however. Further down in the valley, there is another town called Carcassonne, a thriving place full of office blocks, shopping malls and light-engineering factories. You can find similar split identities in towns all over France - not one country but a series of countries superimposed on one another.

Which of the many Frances will vote "non" in the referendum on the European Union constitution today? Could a coalition of the convinced, the confused and the undecided still push the "oui" vote over the 50 per cent mark? One of the four final opinion polls published on Friday night - polling is banned in the last 24 hours of the campaign - suggested that the "yes" camp might be staging a late rally. The CSA poll showed only a 52-48 per cent lead for a "no" vote. There was an even smaller lead among those voters polled on Friday, following President Jacques Chirac's solemn TV warning of calamity if France rejects the treaty.

However, three other polls published on Friday put the "non" vote at 55 or 56 per cent and gaining. If those polls are right, even with one in five voters undecided until the last days, it is difficult to see how the "oui" side can win.

Argument rages over how serious a blow that would be to the EU. Although some EU leaders will insist on going ahead with the ratification process in other countries, it is clear that a French "non" would kill this constitutional treaty. Another treaty is unlikely to come along for several years, maybe a decade.

At the very least, the EU will be left struggling to run its 25-nation (soon to be 27) "real Europe" with institutions little changed from the cosy, six-nation "little Europe" of the 1950s and 1960s. At the worst, the open-borders, free-trade philosophy on which, successively, the EEC, EC and EU have been based for 47 years could be in jeopardy.

A 2,000-mile swing through France last week brought to life something that has been clear, in abstract, in the opinion polls for 10 weeks. Today's "non" - if it is "non" - will be a rejection of the treaty by the France of the centre-left; the France of François Mitterrand, the France of civil servants, public sector workers, teachers, students and left-wing intellectuals. It will also be a rejection, not just of this constitution, but of the ideas - free trade, free movement, open competition - on which the EU was founded (ideas formulated by two great Frenchmen, Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman).

The permanently "angry" third of the French electorate that habitually votes for the extremes of right and left, from the National Front to the Trotskyists, has always detested the EU. They were going to vote "no" from the start. The third of French voters who go for centre-right parties - M. Chirac's political family - has been mostly solid behind "oui" (75-80 per cent) from the beginning.

The swing electorate - which has caused the windscreen-wiper shifts in the polls in the past 10 weeks - is the Socialist and Green electorate of the centre-left. The leading figures in both parties, with one notable exception, have campaigned for a "oui". However, over 50 per cent of Socialist voters and over 70 per cent of Green voters say that they will reject the treaty. If you ask them why, they point - in shocked tones - to the language in the third part of the constitution, the language of "fair and free competition", "open markets" and free movement of goods, people and capital.

This, they say - reciting the arguments of the far left and anti-treaty voices on the centre-left - is a recipe for "ultra-liberalism", or hard, brutal capitalism that will export French jobs to eastern Europe, flood France with Polish plumbers and destroy French public services. In fact, the third part of the treaty, on which these arguments are based, is almost entirely the old gospel of Europe, copied word for word from the 1957 Treaty of Rome. If you push them, many French centre-left voters are evidently unaware of this fact.

The "non" campaign propaganda has made it sound as if the language is all new and invented by Tony Blair and George W Bush. The "oui" campaign - limp and defensive - has been unable to nail this central lie.

Some centre-left voters are well aware that Part Three of the treaty is the old EU religion of Monnet and Schuman, but they still don't like it. In part, this is because of an exaggerated fear of competition from eastern Europe. Partly too, the anti-globalist movement has made anti-capitalist arguments respectable once again in France (where they never wholly went out of fashion).

Other EU countries may reject the treaty for various reasons; but no other country is likely to do so because a key section of the electorate rejects the principle of free markets.

In France, or amid the kaleidoscope of different Frances, appearances are often deceiving. Even the "medieval" Carcassonne - beautiful as it is - was largely reconstructed in the 19th century. It is tempting to talk of today's vote as a fracture between the French "elite" and the French "people". It can also be seen as a cry of pain from the "failing" France of 10 per cent unemployment, rather than the "winning" France of the Airbus and thriving car-making, luxury goods and service industries.

There is an element of truth in both arguments. But the centre-left electorate that will decide the outcome today is largely well-educated and in no particular pain. It is an electorate that benefits from the French status quo of high manning and generous social benefits in the public sector. As in most recent French revolutions, it will be a rather selfish, "conservative" revolution rooted in fear of change.