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French resist EU constitution
Polls show fears that nation will lose sovereignty to Europe super-state

New York Times | April 16, 2005

PARIS - Historically, the French have liked the idea of a united Europe as long as they could run it.

France, after all, was a founding member of the six-country European Coal and Steel Community, which was the precursor to today's 25-country European Union.

But in a brutal shock to the European experiment, 11 opinion polls in France in the last month have indicated that the French are poised to vote "no" in the national referendum on May 29 on the first constitution in the union's history.

The margins may be small, but each poll has been a dagger in the heart of the French political elite.

Every member state must ratify the constitution, and if a member with the grandeur and gravitas of France votes "no," the document will be doomed.

So with few exceptions, French politicians on both the right and the left have predicted dire consequences for both France and Europe if that happens.

"We would likely be completely isolated," President Jacques Chirac said last month.

Rejection of the constitution would threaten France's ability to protect its national interests; nothing less than "peace, stability, democracy, human rights and economic development and social progress in the world of tomorrow" are at stake, he added.

Echoing the euro vote
The mood in the country is reminiscent of 1992, when the French voted on the European Union treaty that committed members to create a single currency. Predictions of a "no" vote provoked such a powerful wave of currency trading throughout Europe that the continent's monetary system almost collapsed.

In the end, the French approved what was known as the Maastricht Treaty by a razor-thin margin. But exit polls revealed deep fears among voters about the loss of French sovereignty to a European super-state.

This time, the loss of sovereignty is one of several reasons for resistance, even though the constitution itself is by no means a revolutionary document, since it will not cede ground in the two areas where sovereignty is most crucial: foreign and defense policy.

Rather, it will consolidate past European Union treaties into a single document.

It also will change the union's voting system, removing, for example, national vetoes from some policy areas, such as immigration, and streamlining the union's administrative leadership.

But as France's role as the dominant power of Europe has shrunk — first with the unification of Germany, most recently with the expansion eastward of the union to add 10 new members last year — France has become more anti-European.

"The French believe that their system is the best and that they are the center of the universe," Bernard Kouchner, the Socialist former health minister and one of the most popular political figures in France, said in a telephone interview. "It's not true. They don't realize they are like an old ship sinking slowly in the sea."

Economic fears

The constitution has been transformed into a repository of all the fears of Frenchmen today.

Some are convinced that the constitution will unfairly strengthen the power of the new countries of the union. Nearly 70 percent of farmers are opposed, for example, according to a poll in mid-March, because they see the European Union taking away precious farm subsidies.

Others fear that accepting the document will further damage the ailing French economy and increase unemployment — 10 percent in January — by moving jobs to such places as Poland.

"For the past 25 years unemployment has been the French public's foremost concern and their prime voting motivation," said a recent editorial in the left-leaning newspaper Liberation, in explaining mounting opposition to the vote.

Selling the measure

Others want to use the referendum to register general opposition to the French government.

A group of 95 mayors of towns in Haute-Saone in eastern France have threatened to refuse to hold the elections in their towns.

Concern about the referendum was widely seen as the reason the Chirac government decided to raise the salaries of unionized civil servants by 0.8 percent last month.

The move was seen as solidarity with the government workers and a transparent ploy to get them to vote "yes." A month ago, civil servants were told there was no money.

The government, meanwhile, has mounted a vast, but haphazard, campaign to sell the constitution. One million copies of it have been made available free in the 6,000 stores of the Casino supermarket chain; 2 million more are at 14,000 of the country's post offices.

There is a Web site and a phone number for those who want free copies sent to them. A children's book, Explain The European Constitution to Me , with a preface by former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, is being distributed at schools.

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