France still split two weeks from EU treaty vote

15th May 2005, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, May 15 (AFP) - With two weeks to go before the vote, official campaigning for France's referendum on the EU's new constitution opens Monday as polls continue to show the two sides neck-and-neck.

PARIS, May 15 (AFP) - With two weeks to go before the vote, official campaigning for France's referendum on the EU's new constitution opens Monday as polls continue to show the two sides neck-and-neck.  

Pre-election rules governing access to broadcast media kick in from midnight, which supporters of the constitutional treaty hope will provide a much-needed fillip to their cause.  

Allocation of radio and television slots is based on performance at recent elections, and as the biggest parties support the constitution the "yes" campaign will have a roughly two-to-one advantage in air time.  

In one of the most eagerly-watched campaigns of recent years, the French are preparing to vote on May 29 on whether to accept a reworking of the European Union's operating rules, designed to take account of the bloc's expansion to the post-communist east.  

The constitution must be ratified by all 25 member states, and a rejection by so important a country as France would leave it dead in its tracks, triggering a period of confusion and paralysis inside the EU.  

Rejection would also have profound political repercussions inside France, where the constitution is being pushed by President Jacques Chirac and his Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party as well as by the opposition Socialists and Greens.  

However the "no" campaign has been helped by a mood of widespread public discontent, feeding on France's sluggish growth, 10.2 percent unemployment and a fear of new competition from the low-cost economies of central and eastern Europe.  

The latest opinion poll, published Saturday, showed the "no" camp victorious with 54 percent of the vote - a leap of four points on a similar poll 10 days previously. Of six other surveys since the start of May, three predicted a win for the "yes," two for the "no" and one a dead heat.  

The rejectionists include the far-right National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the Trotskyite far-left and nationalist Eurosceptics, but pollsters agree that the hinge group of voters are Socialist party (PS) supporters tempted by the argument that the new constitution is a sell-out to US-style free market forces.  

Led by former prime minister Laurent Fabius in defiance of the PS leadership, these opponents fear that France's model of generous social welfare is under threat and that French workers will be undercut by cheaper rivals operating from Poland or Hungary.  

As the temperature of the debate heats up in the final fortnight, Fabius has even been accused of racism by a leading PS supporter of the constitution who said he was whipping up xenophobia against countries of eastern Europe.  

"(Fabius) has made remarks which - and I weigh my words - are close to .... Monsieur Le Pen. I never thought I would hear such absurdities uttered by politicians not hitherto known for being xenophobic populists," Olivier Duhamel, a member of the European parliament, told a Swiss newspaper.  

The anti-racist group SOS-Racism filed suit against another leading member of the Socialist "no" campaign - Christian Bourquin, president of the Pyrenees-Orientales regional council - who said that France's unemployment benefit system was being swamped by workers from eastern Europe.  

Intense debate was also sparked by remarks from the former president of the European Commission Jacques Delors - a supporter of the constitution - who told Le Monde newspaper that it was wrong to say there was no "Plan B" if France voted no.  

"I refuse to put things in black and white. The duty of the truth means I have to say there could be (a Plan B), but we have to explain the extreme difficulty of the problem," Delors said.  

His comments were seized on by opponents of the constitution as proof of their argument that the text could indeed be renegotiated in France's favour.  

However Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the former French president who led the drafting of the constitution, said rewriting was out of the question. "There will be no new text because it will be impossible to ask all the other countries - the majority who ratify the constitution - to forget their votes," he said.


Subject: French News

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