Monday, May 30, 2005

France Throws EU's Future Into Disarray
France Throws EU's Future Into Disarray

Associated Press Writer

PARIS (AP) -- In a stunning rejection of the European Union's latest ambitious move to unite its 25 nations, French voters shot down the bloc's first constitution, dealing a potentially fatal blow to the charter and humiliating President Jacques Chirac.

Sunday's referendum in France, a cradle of continental unity for more than half a century and the country where much of the constitution was painstakingly written, threatened to set back plans for broader European integration by years.

About 55 percent of voters opposed the treaty - the first rejection in Europe. France's repudiation came ahead of Wednesday's referendum in the Netherlands, where polls show even more resistance to the constitution, and had EU leaders scrambling to do damage control.

"The result raises profound questions for all of us about the future direction of Europe," British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said.

But the European Union's industry commissioner, Guenther Verheugen, said the vote was not a catastrophe and that the situation should not be over-dramatized. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, while conceding the outcome was a "serious problem," insisted: "We cannot say that the treaty is dead."

Chirac had waged an all-out campaign to persuade nearly 42 million sharply divided voters to approve the charter. But the electorate was in a rebellious mood, with unemployment running at 10 percent and unease about the direction Europe is taking.

Turnout was close to 70 percent - testifying to the passions that the treaty and the debate surrounding it aroused.

Chirac argued that the constitution would streamline EU decision-making and make the bloc more accessible to its 450 million citizens. But opponents feared it would strip France of its sovereignty and generous social system and trigger an influx of cheap labor.

They feared the treaty would open the EU to unfettered free-market capitalism, trampling on workers rights.

Treaty opponents chanting "We won!" gathered at Paris' Place de la Bastille, a symbol of rebellion where angry crowds in 1789 stormed the Bastille prison and sparked the French Revolution. Cars blared their horns and "no" campaigners thrust their arms into the air.

"This is a great victory," said Fabrice Savel, 38, from the working-class suburb of Aubervilliers, distributing posters that read: "No to a free-market Europe."

Ahmed Meguili, a militant leftist, noted the significance of the Bastille for the "no" camp's celebrations.

"In 1789, the revolutionaries freed the prisoners and frightened the king," he said. "This is the same thing. This is yet another divorce between the leaders and the people."

All 25 EU members must ratify the text for it to take effect as planned by Nov. 1, 2006. Nine already have done so: Austria, Hungary, Italy, Germany, Greece, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain.

The constitution's main architect, former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, said countries that reject the treaty will be asked to vote again.

Chirac said the process of ratifying the treaty would continue in other EU countries.

"It is your sovereign decision, and I take note," Chirac said. "Make no mistake, France's decision inevitably creates a difficult context for the defense of our interests in Europe."

But Philippe de Villiers, a leading opponent, declared the treaty dead.

"There is no more constitution," he said. "It is necessary to reconstruct Europe on other foundations that don't currently exist."

De Villiers called on Chirac to resign - something the French leader had said he would not do - and called for parliament to be dissolved.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, the extreme-right leader who campaigned vigorously against the constitution, also called for Chirac's resignation. Chirac "wanted to gamble ... and he has lost," Le Pen said.

Chirac and other European leaders had said there was no fallback plan in the event of a French rejection. But voters did not believe that. Many, especially on the left, hoped their "no" vote would force the EU back to the drawing board and improve the 448-clause document.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the head of Chirac's ruling Union for a Popular Movement and a leading campaigner for the "yes" camp, called Sunday's defeat "a major political event."

Looking ahead to France's next general elections in 2007, Sarkozy said: "We must decide on an innovative, courageous and ambitious plan of action."

Chirac's popularity ratings have plummeted in recent weeks, and in his television address, the president said he would announce "my decisions concerning the government and its priorities" in coming days. There was widespread speculation that he would dump unpopular Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin.