This is a big gamble for President Chirac

If he loses, the EU constitution will be dead and he will be under great pressure to resign

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Judging by his reception when he rolled down the Champs Elysées on the back of a jeep to start the 14 July parade, President Jacques Chirac's European referendum gamble is already lost. Most Parisians received the grinning Président de la République, their former mayor, with scarcely a clap or a cheer; with, at best, impolite indifference.

Judging by his reception when he rolled down the Champs Elysées on the back of a jeep to start the 14 July parade, President Jacques Chirac's European referendum gamble is already lost. Most Parisians received the grinning Président de la République, their former mayor, with scarcely a clap or a cheer; with, at best, impolite indifference.

M. Chirac went on, in his traditional, soft television interview for the national day, to announce that he would put the draft European constitution to a referendum, in the second half of next year. Without a glimmer of a smile, he said he hoped that "politicians" would not "pollute the debate". M. Chirac being M. Chirac, one can be sure that his decision to call a referendum was not untainted with political calculation.

With nine other countries, including Britain, already opting to put the constitution to a popular vote, it might seem the President had no choice. The laws of the fifth French republic do give him a choice. He could have put the constitution to a vote of both houses of parliament. If that had served President Chirac's interests better, that is, doubtless, what he would have done.

The most recent polls suggest that more than 60 per cent of French people support the new EU treaty, without having particularly thought about it. They do not (yet) regard the EU constitution as a wicked assault on the French way of life, an insidious attempt by Brussels bureaucrats to abolish baguettes, berets, snails, frogs' legs, Gérard Depardieu and double-parking.

Without a French Daily Mail or Sun to "pollute the debate", the "oui" vote should win easily. Shouldn't it? Not necessarily. Referendum in France have a nasty habit of turning into opinion polls on the president, or government, of the day. President François Mitterrand, halfway through his scandal-littered second term, almost lost the Maastricht referendum on the euro in September 1992. President Charles de Gaulle, wounded by the protests of 1968, did lose a relatively innocuous referendum on regional government in April 1969. He immediately resigned.

M. Chirac knows that he is betting for big stakes. If he loses the referendum, the EU constitution will be dead, long before most countries have expressed their opinion. The constitution could scarcely survive a British "no". A French "non" would send it straight to the waste-paper basket.

Much worse, from M. Chirac's view-point, a French "non" would put him under great pressure to follow the precedent set by his alleged role-model, Charles de Gaulle, and resign. In other words, M. Chirac must be pretty confident he can win a "yes" vote. He has also decided that a 13-month referendum campaign is the best way to scatter his domestic enemies, both on the left, and within his own dysfunctional family of the centre-right.

First, the left. The draft EU constitution is represented by the nationalist right in Britain as a French-German conspiracy to impose a suffocating blanket of federalism and state-interventionism on the freedom-loving British. It is represented by much of the supposedly internationalist, but actually nationalist, left in France as an attempt to impose the heartless Anglo-Saxon, ultra-free-market model on the equality- and intervention-loving French.

The Communists, some of the Greens, the various tribes of Trotskyists and anti-globalists in France viscerally oppose the constitution. So do many of the more leftist figures in the main opposition party, the Socialists. Most of the mainstream leadership of the Socialists, including their secretary general, François Hollande, support the treaty. Being forced to do so publicly, and actively, will - M. Chirac hopes - tear apart the resurgent Socialists, and blow many left-wing voters back to the extremes.

At the same time, M. Chirac's unexpected referendum announcement was intended to restore his crumbling authority over the centre-right. The finance minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, had manoeuvred himself brilliantly into a position where he, not M. Chirac, and certainly not the Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, was regarded as the fount of wisdom and future power on the right.

The President needed a bold, decisive-seeming stroke which would force most of his wavering troops to rally behind him. Nonetheless, the referendum remains a huge gamble. M. Chirac's gambles have often proved to be wild and unwise.

Both the President and M. Raffarin's government (Sarkozy apart) are unpopular. Unemployment is stuck at around 10 per cent, even though the economy is recovering. Europe, though generally accepted as part of the political scenery in France, is now also a source of truculence. French influence in Brussels is declining and felt to be declining. Up to 30 per cent of the French electorate regularly votes for extremes of right and left, both furiously anti-European.

If M.Chirac wins the referendum handsomely, he may regain sufficient momentum to launch a bid for a third term in 2007 (at the age of 74). If he loses, his picaresque career will have ended in a typically Chiraquian car smash.

The most likely outcome is less dramatic: a muddled and narrow "yes" vote, which will do nothing much to set the treaty ball rolling elsewhere - and certainly not in the UK.

indyparis@compuserve.com

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