French ‘non’ to EU treatyplunges Europe in crisis
PARIS, May 29 (AFP) – French voters massively rejected the EU’s first-ever constitution Sunday, dealing a rude slap in the face to President Jacques Chirac and a potentially fatal setback to the continent’s ambitious plans for deeper political union.
In a national referendum they voted by about 55 percent to 45 to turn down the constitution, according to three exit counts released as polls closed at 10 pm (0800 GMT). The “no” win had been predicted, but the huge margin of the victory deepened a sense of crisis across the European Union.
Turn-out was high, at between 70 and 😯 percent, reflecting the intensity of the national debate.
“This is an ordeal, a real disappointment,” said Foreign Minister Michel Barnier, while Defence Minister Michele Alliot-Marie called it “a defeat for France and a defeat for Europe.”
Chirac appeared on national television to “take note” of the constitution’s rejection. He said he would continue to speak out for France in the EU, but said the decision “inevitably creates a difficult context for defending our interests in Europe.”
Confirming predictions that he would reshuffle his cabinet, he said an announcement would be made in the coming days.
The result was a crushing blow to the 72-year-old president, who put his authority on the line with three televised appeals for a “yes” vote – warning that rejection would marginalise France’s voice in Europe and do nothing to safeguard its generous social model.
Instead the public was swayed by fears that the treaty would destroy the country’s welfare system, leach new powers to Brussels and shift jobs to low-cost economies of eastern Europe.
The result opened a period of deep uncertainty inside the EU because the constitution needs to be ratified by all 25 members.
By creating the posts of EU president and foreign minister and streamlining the process of decision-making in an enlarged bloc, the treaty’s 448 articles are intended to build European muscle at a time of intensifying global competition.
So far nine countries have approved the constitution and the rest aim to continue the procedure up to a deadline of October 2006, but it is unclear how the text can survive now that it has been nixed in one of the EU’s six founder members and half of the key Franco-German axis.
European leaders fear the French “no” could have a domino effect in other countries planning to hold referendums – first of all the Netherlands which has a non-binding national vote on Wednesday.
The French president – who marked ten years in office earlier this month – ignored calls for his resignation, instead hinting he would dismiss his unpopular Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin in the coming days.
Hotly-tipped to replace him is Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin, 51, who made his name as the suave spokesman for French opposition to the US war in Iraq. Other names mentioned are Alliot-Marie and Chirac’s arch-rival Nicolas Sarkozy, head of the ruling UMP party.
The rejection marked further evidence of the chronic rift separating the French public from the Paris-based political establishment, nearly all of which – on left and right – lined up in support of the constitution.
Chirac’s Union for a Popular Movement was joined by the centrist Union for French Democracy (UDF) and the opposition Socialists and Greens in calling for a “yes” vote – meaning that parties holding 96 percent of seats in the National Assembly were disavowed by the public Sunday.
The “no” vote was urged by a disparate array of forces, including the far-right of Jean-Marie Le Pen, nationalist Eurosceptics, Communists and Trotskyites, dissident Socialists under former prime minister Laurent Fabius, and anti-globalisation groups.
Two months of campaigning triggered one of the most passionate political debates of recent years, with both sides sensing that the referendum was a moment to define France’s future course. Families and friends were polarised as the country split down the middle between pros and antis.
While supporters argued that the constitution was a necessary next step towards France’s destiny as the leader of a united Europe, rejectionists said it was a charter for unbridled capitalism and would entrench US-style “liberal” economics at the heart of the EU.
Many ordinary voters caught the message that the constitution would open up France to cheap competition from eastern Europe and lead to “dumping” as norms of social protection are dragged downwards. Some saw a “no” vote as a way of blocking Turkish entry to the EU, even though the issue is not in the text.
Despite Chirac’s urging in a televised appeal on Thursday “not to answer the wrong question,” it is also clear that many voters used the referendum to punish his government – which they blame for 10.2 percent unemployment, falling real wages and the crisis of confidence in the country’s future.
Subject: French News