A setback for the treaty, but Europe will survive

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The Independent Online

In the end, the French "non" was as decisive a rejection as the most hardened British Eurosceptic could have wished for. The eclectic alliance of the Socialist left, the xenophobic right, those mired in the past, those impatient for change, and the just plain bloody-minded combined to make Europe's much-vaunted constitutional treaty a dead letter before the Dutch, the Poles and the British had their chance to kill it off. Without the support of the French - the French of all people - it is unrealistic to believe that this document will survive, let alone form the legal underpinning of the European Union's future.

In the end, the French "non" was as decisive a rejection as the most hardened British Eurosceptic could have wished for. The eclectic alliance of the Socialist left, the xenophobic right, those mired in the past, those impatient for change, and the just plain bloody-minded combined to make Europe's much-vaunted constitutional treaty a dead letter before the Dutch, the Poles and the British had their chance to kill it off. Without the support of the French - the French of all people - it is unrealistic to believe that this document will survive, let alone form the legal underpinning of the European Union's future.

This is a pity, not least for those who worked so long and hard to draft it. But it cannot be described as a tragedy, nor yet as a crisis that presages the end of the EU. The treaty itself was justly criticised for being too wordy. There was confusion about whether it was primarily a constitution or a treaty. With hindsight, it might have been better to separate the writing of a constitution - short and idealistic in tone - from a basic law bringing together and streamlining all the legal instruments. There will doubtless be much hand-wringing to this effect in the days and weeks to come.

The treaty is one thing, however, and the European project is another. A good proportion of the French who voted "no", did so because they believed the treaty did too little to guarantee the EU's "European" character. They wanted a document that would be more "left", more socialist, and a more explicit defence of workers' rights than the one they had before them. They dismissed the advice of those, such as their President, who insisted, rightly, that in these respects the treaty was no different from the documents to which France - and the other EU members - were already bound.

Their rejection of these reassurances, as of the treaty, is itself a comment on the mistrust which large sections of the French currently nurture towards the governing elite and the forces of globalisation. M. Chirac, who failed to anticipate the popular rebellion until it was too late, stands to suffer most. The image he has cultivated as patron of France and man of Europe has been shattered, as has his political legacy. It remains to be seen whether Nicolas Sarkozy, head of the President's party but also a rival, can capitalise from the discontent. France's Socialist Party, foolishly split over the treaty, emerges even weaker than before. Laurent Fabius, who broke ranks to lead the campaign for "no", will be a force in the party again.

The one conclusion that cannot be drawn from this vote, however, is that France is disengaging from Europe. The active and vociferous debate conducted in all corners of the country as the referendum approached revealed a country riven with doubt about its own identity and about the future. But it also showed a nation profoundly engaged with Europe, in a way that perhaps no other member of the European Union is now, or has ever been. This makes the French result both more significant and, once everyone has got over the initial shock, more heartening. It means that Europe matters.

There is, of course, great irony in the fact that the inspiration for this treaty was France and that its chief architect was Valéry Giscard d'Estaing - the man who most closely personified the European idea in France. But it is equally ironic that the national leader to whom it will fall to pick up the pieces is the British Prime Minister, when Britain assumes the EU presidency in July. There can be little doubt that the French "no" releases him from his promise to hold a referendum in Britain. A divisive debate could therefore be avoided. A bold leader might proceed with the vote, gambling that if Britain voted "yes", the leadership of Europe would be his. It would be a sweet, but improbable, denouement.

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