Chirac steels himself for battle on EU constitution

30th March 2005, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, March 30 (AFP) - French President Jacques Chirac, under pressure to campaign actively for the European constitution as the 'no' camp surges ahead, will enter the fray when the time is right, key ministers said Wednesday.

PARIS, March 30 (AFP) - French President Jacques Chirac, under pressure to campaign actively for the European constitution as the 'no' camp surges ahead, will enter the fray when the time is right, key ministers said Wednesday.

"Jacques Chirac is the one who can carry the vote" in a May 29 referendum on the landmark text aimed at streamlining decision-making in the 25-member European Union, Education Minister Francois Fillon told RTL radio.

Chirac must "enter the battle", Fillon said, but added: "He must not do so too soon."

Foreign Minister Michel Barnier, who with Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin is expected to spearhead the government's "yes" campaign in the next two months, conveyed the same message.

Chirac, "who himself wanted the referendum, will take his place at the moment of his choosing" to explain the constitution and what is at stake for the French people in the May vote.

"The president of the republic took the necessary risk to spark a referendum ... it's never a mistake to have a debate," Barnier noted in an interview with LCI news channel, adding: "I am sure that 'yes' will prevail."

Chirac and his centre-right government are under mounting pressure to convince French voters to back the European constitution, after five consecutive opinion polls showed a majority would reject the treaty.

The latest survey, conducted by the Ifop polling institute for Paris Match magazine, showed that 53 percent of those who expressed a view said they would vote against the constitution.

The constitution must be ratified in all 25 EU member states. A rejection by France, one of the EU's founding members, would effectively kill the treaty and could throw the EU into crisis.

Chirac, who has staked his prestige on a "yes" to the European constitution, "will naturally strongly commit himself" to the campaign when the time comes, government spokesman Jean-Francois Cope said after a weekly cabinet meeting.

"Every member of government has his marching orders," Cope added.

Raffarin will try to breathe life into the 'yes' campaign late Wednesday with a debate on the constitution in the central-eastern city of Lyon.

Nicolas Sarkozy, Chirac's arch-rival and head of the ruling conservative UMP party, was set to urge French voters to vote "yes" in a live television appearance late Thursday.

The opposition Socialist party (PS), officially campaigning for the treaty but riven by an internal split on the issue, was also due to take to the streets, with leader Francois Hollande in the southern port of Marseille on Thursday.

Several explanations have emerged for the rise of the "no" camp including 10 percent unemployment, declining purchasing power, fears over Turkish entry into the EU and a controversial proposal to free up the EU's vast services sector.

"Recently, we've frequently heard the arguments for a 'no' vote. Little by little, stronger and stronger, we're seeing the arguments for 'yes' emerge in the public debate," Cope said.

Barnier attacked what he called "untruths" in the "no" campaign in a commentary published in Le Monde newspaper, concluding with the stern warning: "A 'no' in France would mean a France that is mute in Europe."

© AFP

Subject: French News

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