Shock as opposition to EU charter climbs in France

21st March 2005, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, March 21 (AFP) - Consternation gripped the government of President Jacques Chirac on Monday after a second poll in four days showed a majority of the French public rejecting the EU constitution at a referendum in ten weeks.

PARIS, March 21 (AFP) - Consternation gripped the government of President Jacques Chirac on Monday after a second poll in four days showed a majority of the French public rejecting the EU constitution at a referendum in ten weeks.

The Ipsos survey in Le Figaro newspaper showed 52 percent preparing to vote "no" on May 29, with 48 percent for the "yes" - a spectacular leap of 12 points in just two weeks.

It confirmed the findings of Friday's poll in Le Parisien newspaper, which put opposition to the constitution at 51 percent. That was the first time the "no" vote had led in the polls and it sent a shockwave through France's political establishment.

Both surveys found that the main factor boosting the "no" camp was the conversion of many Socialist party voters. The rise in "no" supporters coincided with a wave of strikes and demonstrations in France, and rejection of the constitution is now the majority position on the country's political left.

The figures were disastrous news for President Jacques Chirac, who has put his political weight behind the EU constitution, and showed the difficulties of mobilising support for a document that few members of the public pretend to understand clearly.

They were also an embarrassment for the opposition Socialist party (PS) which is officially campaigning for the constitution but is riven by a deep internal split.

The rise in support for the "no" campaign was being watched with anxiety in Brussels, where insiders warned that a rejection of the constitution by so important a country as France would be a disastrous setback for the European Union.

"If France votes no, the constitution is dead," said Daniel Keohane of the Centre for European Reform. "The momentum is on the ‘no’ side. It's going to be difficult to regain and it's worrying."

The EU constitution is meant to streamline decision-making in the expanding bloc but must be ratified in all 25 member states before it can come into effect.

The French former president of the European Commission Jacques Delors warned that a "no" vote would cause a "political cataclysm" in France. "And in Europe it will open up a very serious crisis which will slow down European construction - at the expense of French interests," he said.

Several factors were being put forward as explanations for the surge of the "no" camp in France - including the unpopularity of Chirac's centre-right government, fears over Turkish entry into the EU, and the recent focus on a controversial proposal to liberalise EU service industries.

Described by former Socialist prime minister Laurent Fabius as a "foretaste of the European constitution," the so-called Bolkestein directive would make it possible for service-providers such as architects or accountants to operate across the 25 members.

But opponents say it would lead to "social dumping" as business and jobs relocate to the low-cost economies of eastern Europe. Spotting the political danger, Chirac has himself condemned the directive - but the issue has played strongly into the hands of his opponents.

Chirac is haunted by fears that voters will use the EU referendum as an opportunity to punish his government - at a time when growing unemployment, falling disposable incomes and record profits for top companies have combined to build a mood of popular discontent.

"This momentum for the 'no' camp is an illustration of very high levels of social and economic anxiety among the French. In many social groups there is a real fear that their impoverishment will become permanent," said Pierre Giacometti, the director of the Ipsos polling institute.

Adding to Chirac's concern is the memory of the 1992 referendum on the Maastricht treaty which was won by just a whisker after the "yes" vote fell sharply in the campaign.

And the president also knows that many left-wingers resent having been made to vote for him against far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in the May second round of the 2002 election, and will jump at the chance to make his life difficult exactly three years later.

© AFP

Subject: French News

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