Pressure mounts on Chiracto call EU referendum

10th May 2004, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, May 10 (AFP) - French President Jacques Chirac was under increased pressure Monday to call a referendum on the EU's proposed new constitution, after his own political party ruled that parliamentary approval alone would not do justice to the issue's historic importance.

PARIS, May 10 (AFP) - French President Jacques Chirac was under increased pressure Monday to call a referendum on the EU's proposed new constitution, after his own political party ruled that parliamentary approval alone would not do justice to the issue's historic importance.

At a meeting of its policy-forming national council in Paris Sunday, the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) voted by a 72 percent majority for a motion supporting a popular consultation on the new constitution, which is to redefine power-sharing in an EU newly enlarged to 25 members.

The vote, which was greeted by applause at the assembly in the suburb of Aubervilliers, put the party at odds with its leader who is known to have doubts about resorting to a referendum because of fears it could result in a victory for the no camp.

As recently as April 29, Chirac told a news conference called to mark the accession of the 10 new EU states that it was "premature" to decide between a referendum and a parliamentary vote because the text of the proposed constitution has yet to be finalised.

Reacting to the UMP vote, Chirac's spokeswoman Catherine Colonna said: "In our constitution there are two ways for ratification. The president will make a decision when the time comes. The time has not yet come."

The constitution is intended to streamline decision-making in the EU by redistributing the competences of the Brussels-based commission, the Strasbourg-based parliament and individual member states. It would also create posts of EU president and foreign minister.

Based on recommendations from former French president Valery Giscard-D'Estaing, the document appeared headed for oblivion earlier this year because of objections from Spain and Poland, but the surprise Socialist victory in Spanish elections in March has raised hopes that agreement can be reached by next month.

The constitution would then have to be approved by all 25 member countries, with each choosing its own mechanism for ratification. Pressure on Chirac to use a referendum was intensified by British Prime Minister Tony Blair's surprise announcement last month that he will call one, probably next year.

The UMP vote in favour of a referendum was urged by Chirac's arch-rival within the party, Finance Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, a popular and ambitious figure who increasingly enjoys taking positions that distance him from the president.

"I do not see how it could be possible to say to the French that the European constitution is a major document, and then to conclude that it has to be adopted by parliamentarians without anyone taking the trouble of asking directly the opinion of the French," Sarkozy said.

The motion in favour of a referendum was then tabled by the party's president Alain Juppe. As he is a close ally of Chirac, his decision to back the call was interpreted Monday as a sign that the president himself may be edging towards acceptance of a popular vote.

Several commentators said the UMP's support for a referendum was also electorally-motivated.

After being trounced in regional elections in March the UMP hopes to make up ground in next month's European vote, and the referendum call outmanoeuvres opposition parties - both pro- and anti-European - who have accused the government of not having the courage to put the issue to the people.

It was the second time recently that the UMP has taken a European stance at variance with Chirac's. Last month the party came out unequivocally against Turkish membership of the EU, while Chirac said at his news conference that "Turkey has a European vocation."

According to a recent CSA poll, some 74 percent of the French want a referendum on the constitution. Some 57 percent of those consulted said they would approve the constitution, with 25 percent opposed.

© AFP

Subject: French news

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