Chirac sets May 29 for landmark EU referendum

4th March 2005, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, March 4 (AFP) - The European Union's nascent constitution will get its first real make-or-break test on May 29 when French voters are called on to decide whether to adopt the landmark charter.

PARIS, March 4 (AFP) - The European Union's nascent constitution will get its first real make-or-break test on May 29 when French voters are called on to decide whether to adopt the landmark charter.

President Jacques Chirac, aware that a 'no' vote could scuttle the constitution, which theoretically requires approval in all 25 EU states to come into effect, on Friday had his office announce the referendum date.

"The president of the republic has decided that the referendum on the European constitution will take place May 29, 2005," a statement from his Elysee palace said.

Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin effectively launched the campaign in favour of the referendum immediately afterwards, by having an article published in afternoon Le Monde newspaper in which he called the vote "urgent" and "historic".

But, though Chirac has staked his personal prestige - and his legacy - on having the referendum approved, the outcome is far from certain.

The French electorate, angry over economic and labour reforms imposed by the conservative government and wary over Chirac's push to have Turkey become an EU member in the future, is in a volatile mood.

Street protests have been gathering pace in recent weeks and are to reach a crescendo next Thursday with a national strike that promises to paralyse the country, in a scene reminiscent of demonstrations in 1995 that eventually brought down Chirac's previous centre-right government.

Polls published last month showed support for the referendum had slipped to 58 percent while the 'no' camp had swelled to 42 percent of voters.

A separate monthly survey released Friday showed Chirac's unpopularity with voters had jumped two points to 61 percent, and that of Raffarin had grown to69 percent.

With public support slipping away and the prospect of France - one of the founding states of the EU, and its second-biggest economy - becoming known as the country that torpedoed the EU constitution, Chirac has brought forward plans for the referendum.

On Monday, both houses of parliament held a rare joint session in the palace of Versailles to modify France's 1958 constitution so that the referendum on the EU charter can go ahead.

And on Thursday, Chirac spent the day meeting one political party chief after another to consult on the best date for the plebiscite to be held.

The main parties, Chirac's ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) and the opposition Socialists, have officially backed a 'yes' vote, though both have dissident members who say they will join the Communist Party in urging a 'no' vote.

The constitution aims to streamline decision-making and forge a more coherent joint foreign policy in the European Union, which is finding its current procedures - often requiring the unanimity of members - unwieldy following the bloc's expansion last year from 15 to 25 states.

Raffarin, in his article, said "the world needs Europe because it is a bastion against the clash of civilisations."

He argued that the EU constitution would strengthen the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation and efforts to preserve the world's environment.

"With a foreign minister for Europe, our continent's voice will be stronger.

There is urgence in this."

Raffarin said the administrative benefits brought by the charter were necessary, and claimed it would uphold workers' rights - a touchy subject in France, where some view the proposed constitution as a Trojan Horse for liberal labour market reform.

Europe's economic and cultural priorities would also be strengthened by the text, the prime minister wrote, adding that his support was "non-partisan".

Public views on the French presidential elections due in 2007 and Turkey's bid to join the European Union should be kept separate from the debate over the constitution, he said, stressing that the latter issue would be dealt with through a referendum of its own.

"The debate over the future of Europe is not owned by anyone. It goes beyond political rivalries, without erasing them. Above all, it concerns future generations," Raffarin wrote.

France is not the first EU country to take steps towards the proposed constitution.

Spain held the bloc's first referendum on February 20, with the result an overwhelming 'yes' result that was never in doubt.

France and another nine EU member states are to call their voters out to decide the matter. Denmark announced Monday it would hold its plebiscite on September 27.

Britain - whose citizens are the most euro sceptic in the European Union - has yet to announce a date for its referendum, reluctantly agreed to by Prime Minister Tony Blair, though it looks likely to take place in the first half of 2006.

The remaining 15 EU members have decided to ratify the charter through their parliaments, without putting it directly before voters - a choice that has generated some resentment, particularly in Germany, the EU's biggest economy and biggest contributor to EU coffers.

Hungary, Lithuania and Slovenia have already ratified the constitution via parliamentary vote.


Subject: French News

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