Chirac advances joint session on EU referendum

18th February 2005, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Feb 18 (AFP) - In a sign that the government-backed "yes" campaign is finally moving into high gear in France, President Jacques Chirac on Friday accelerated the timetable for a referendum on the EU's new constitutional treaty.

PARIS, Feb 18 (AFP) - In a sign that the government-backed "yes" campaign is finally moving into high gear in France, President Jacques Chirac on Friday accelerated the timetable for a referendum on the EU's new constitutional treaty.

The president's office announced that a special joint session of the two houses of parliament which must precede the announcement of the referendum date will he held in the palace of Versailles on February 28 - two weeks earlier than expected.

Members of the National Assembly and the Senate, which are both dominated by Chirac supporters, must pass by a three-fifths majority an amendment to the country's 1958 constitution before the referendum - originally planned for June - can go ahead.

Insiders at the Elysee palace said this week that the national consultation could now be brought forward to May - an advance widely seen as a response to the growing public support for opponents of the EU treaty.

Two opinion surveys this week showed gains of five points for the "no" camp, which now stands at around 40 percent of the electorate.

With the opposition campaign spearheaded by left-wingers who see the EU constitution as a sell-out to big business, the government fears a bandwagon effect as disgruntled voters vent their unhappiness at high unemployment, low incomes and the strains of economic globalisation.

A series of strikes and demonstrations in recent weeks by state sector workers, schoolchildren and defenders of the 35-hour week has persuaded Chirac that the public mood is surly and could be minded to strike a blow at his centre-right administration.

Memories of the 1992 Maastricht referendum - when a large majority in favour was whittled away to a paper-thin margin over a long campaign - are also an argument for bringing forward the vote.

Supporters of the EU constitution have accused the government of delaying its campaign for a "yes" vote and allowing opponents to make the running.

"Chirac has a dilemma. He does not want to link the government too closely to the "yes" campaign because Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin is so unpopular in the country. So who is to lead the charge?" said a senior EU diplomat in Paris.

But in another sign that Chirac wishes to move quicker than expected on the referendum, Raffarin on Friday "sounded the starting whistle for the work of information (on the constitution) which will now be engaged by every member of the cabinet," according to government spokesman Jean-Francois Cope.

The prime minister urged cabinet colleagues to "explain the main lines of the treaty, but also to respond point by point to the worries of the public - in particular of those tempted to vote no," he said.

The Versailles parliamentary congress on Monday week will vote through a constitutional amendment stipulating that France "can participate in the European Union under the conditions laid out in the treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe signed on October 29, 2004."

The EU constitution - which is designed to facilitate decision-making in the expanding bloc - must be approved in all 25 member states. In theory a rejection in a single country can scupper the whole process.

In France the constitution is backed by the government and the opposition Socialists and Greens. In parliament only the Communists are formally against it. However a large bloc of the Socialist party is also against the treaty, as are parties of the far left and right.

© AFP

Subject: French News

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