Chirac strives to stem surging 'no' vote in France

13th April 2005, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, April 13 (AFP) - French President Jacques Chirac was due to join the heated debate over the European constitution on Thursday with a live television appearance, as the "no" camp remains in front six weeks before the referendum.

PARIS, April 13 (AFP) - French President Jacques Chirac was due to join the heated debate over the European constitution on Thursday with a live television appearance, as the "no" camp remains in front six weeks before the referendum.

Since mid-March, more than a dozen opinion polls have indicated that French voters will reject the landmark treaty in the May 29 referendum.

Three polls released on Tuesday alone put support for the "no" camp at 53 to 54 percent.

"This is no longer a 'no' based on mood, it's a 'no' based on conviction," said Pierre Giacometti, managing director of the Ipsos polling institute.

Chirac, who has staked his prestige on approval of the constitution, will launch his "yes" campaign with a live two-hour televised discussion with 80 young adults aged 18-30 and chosen from the "yes", "no" and "undecided" camps.

"The campaign is now in its operational phase. The president's presentation will be essential," government spokesman Jean-Francois Cope said Wednesday after a weekly cabinet meeting.

The French president - who has come under mounting pressure to campaign more actively for the constitution - is hoping his appearance will quell doubts about the treaty and stem surging opposition to the text.

"From here on in, the hopes of the 'yes' camp rest on the head of state," the conservative daily Le Figaro said Tuesday in a commentary, describing Thursday's program as a "last-chance meeting".

The format of the show immediately sparked controversy, as the main presenter, top news anchor Patrick Poivre d'Arvor, will be joined by three television personalities known as talk show hosts, not journalists.

Those in the "no" camp also complained that Chirac would not face a political adversary, saying the "yes" campaign was being given preferential treatment in prime-time viewing hours.

But Chirac's aides quickly rejected those arguments, saying the president wanted to engage in a "direct dialogue with the French people", and that he would not debate other political leaders before the referendum.

The constitution, which aims to streamline decision-making in the expanded 25-member European Union, must be ratified by all member states. A rejection in France, one of the EU's largest countries, would effectively kill the treaty.

The Elysee is banking on Chirac's ability to convince voters not to turn the referendum into a protest vote against the center-right government's gradual economic reforms, stubborn unemployment and decreasing purchasing power.

"This constitution is a response to the current concerns of the French people," Cope told Le Figaro.

The French president also will try to convince voters that a "no" vote could lead to a crisis in the European Union. Recent opinion polls indicate that the French believe a "no" vote would simply lead to a renegotiation of the text.

"I know that 'no' is fashionable right now, but are people really aware of what that means? Voting no on May 29 will lead to paralysis," Cope told Le Figaro.

Portugese President Jorge Sampaio, on an official visit to France, told Euronews that a French "no" to the constitution would "indisputably open up a crisis" within the EU.

Cope and other top ministers hit the airwaves and the press on Wednesday to make the case for the constitution, preparing the way for Chirac's much-awaited TV appearance, which was pushed back a week due to Pope John Paul II's funeral.

"Each French man and woman must forget his political persuasion, his momentary worries, try to cast themselves into the future and vote yes or no according to his or her conscience," Cope said.

"Every French person benefits from the European Union," chimed in Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin.

"If France were to vote no, and we were to find ourselves at the back of the class, do you think the other countries would be tempted to make the concessions they've made?" de Villepin told a French news channel.

© AFP

Subject: French News

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