Shock poll shows France to reject EU charter

18th March 2005, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, March 18 (AFP) - France was hit by a political shockwave Friday after an opinion poll for the first time suggested that a majority of the public will reject the EU's constitution at a referendum in ten weeks' time.

PARIS, March 18 (AFP) - France was hit by a political shockwave Friday after an opinion poll for the first time suggested that a majority of the public will reject the EU's constitution at a referendum in ten weeks' time.

After weeks in which the "no" camp has made steady but unspectacular progress among a minority of voters, the survey in Le Parisien newspaper showed a sudden leap to 51 percent - largely explained by a big increase in opposition to the constitution on the left.

According to the CSA survey, support for the "no" vote grew from 31 percent six months ago to 37 percent in mid-February before spurting ahead just as the country went through a period of mass anti-government strikes and demonstrations.

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.

But the French president put on a brave face, saying Friday he had "complete confidence in our citizens, that they will be able to discern what is in their interest, that of their country and their children."

The figures were also a blow to the opposition Socialist party (PS) which is officially campaigning for the constitution but is riven by a deep internal split. Embarrassingly, the CSA poll showed that a large majority of Socialist supporters - 59 percent - opposes the text.

A rejection of the constitution in the vote on May 29 would have enormous implications, both in France and across the EU.

The document - which is meant to streamline decision-making in the expanding bloc - must be ratified in all 25 member states, and it is hard to see how it could survive in its existing form if turned down in one of the EU's largest and most important countries.

The French former president of the European Commission Jacques Delors warned Thursday 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 presented Friday as explanations for the surging success of the "no" camp in France - including the unpopularity of Chirac's centre-right government, fears over Turkish entry into the EU, and the focus on a controversial proposal to liberalise EU service industries.

The so-called Bolkestein directive - named after a former Dutch commissioner for the EU's internal market - has dominated the news in France in the last weeks, allowing opponents to portray it as a symbol of Europe's general surrender to big business interests.

Described by former Socialist prime minister Laurent Fabius as a "foretaste of the European constitution," the 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 as an issue it has played strongly into the hands of his opponents.

In Brussels the European commission said it was "concerned" by the rise in support for a "no" vote, but spokeswoman Francoise Le Bail said that "the controversy over the Bolkestein directive and misunderstandings that arise from it were certainly a factor."

Supporters of the constitution argued that the "yes" campaign has yet to get underway - and that once the advantages are properly explained the public will understand the importance of voting yes.

But 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.

Memories are strong 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 Chirac 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 presidential election, and will jump at the chance to make his life difficult exactly three years later.


Subject: French News

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