Europe Frets Ahead of French Vote on EU Constitution

European political leaders are issuing increasingly desperate appeals for the French to vote "Yes" in next week's referendum on the new European Union constitution. All 25 member states have to approve the new constitution before it can come into force. The latest polls show France will vote "No."

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France was one of the founders of the European Union. Yet in the latest opinion poll, 53 percent of French voters say they will likely oppose the European Constitution. It's a document meant to guide European political and economic integration. A national referendum is set for later this month in France. The measure must be ratified by all 25 EU members to go into force. As Eleanor Beardsley reports, some say France may be about to torpedo its own future.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY reporting:

It wasn't supposed to happen this way. Six months ago there seemed little doubt that a referendum on Europe's Constitution would be approved by the French. But that was before President Jacques Chirac's government started its reform program.

(Soundbite of demonstration)

Unidentified Man #1: (French spoken)

(Soundbite of whistle)

BEARDSLEY: In February and March, tens of thousands of workers demonstrated across France against the government's plans to trim benefits, lengthen the 35-hour working week and privatize state companies. It wasn't long before the referendum on the EU Constitution began to morph into a plebiscite on Chirac and his government. Concerns about competition from Eastern European workers and the possible admission of Turkey to the EU also came to the fore. French parliamentarian Axel Poniatowski says the `no' camp has grown so quickly because it has become a repository for everyone with a gripe about anything at all.

Mr. AXEL PONIATOWSKI (French Parliamentarian): Some of them don't like Chirac. Some of them are jobless, you know, and they cannot be happy. Some of them think that the French will lose their identity. Some of them are strongly against Turkey.

(Soundbite of broadcast)

Unidentified Man #2: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: After keeping a low profile on the issue, Chirac finally threw himself into the fray last month by holding a nationally televised town hall meeting with a hand-selected group of French youth. He explained why the French had to vote `oui' on May 29th.

President JACQUES CHIRAC (France): (Through Translator) I don't want to dramatize, but the first consequence will be that European construction comes to a halt, and you'll be left with 24 countries who voted yes and the black sheep who blocked everything.

BEARDSLEY: But Chirac's so-called infomercial was a flop, only highlighting the aging president's inability to connect with the country and especially its youth. So next the French government trotted out film star Gerard Depardieu to try to sell the treaty to a skeptical public.

Mr. GERARD DEPARDIEU (French Film Star): (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Depardieu quoted a pro-European text by Victor Hugo, then told reporters how he planned to vote.

Mr. DEPARDIEU: Moi, je dit `oui.'

(Soundbite of applause)

BEARDSLEY: But the government's offensive doesn't seem to be working. Five successive opinion polls have put the `no' camp in the lead. Both the `oui' and `non' campaigns are now at full throttle. Politicians are attacking each other, and the country is divided. Nicole Bacharan, a researcher at Paris' Sciences-Po University, says each side has its own vision of France's future.

Ms. NICOLE BACHARAN (Researcher, Sciences-Po University): One side, which would be more optimistic, more entrepreneurial, more open; and then another side of the country that's just kind of worried and scared and sees the outside world more as a threat.

BEARDSLEY: Chirac insists the constitution offers a European social model that's an alternative to America's hire-and-fire culture. His opponents say the constitution would encourage that kind of cut-throat capitalism. Many French people say they still don't understand what the constitution is all about. Undecided voter Michel DuJa(ph) echoes a common worry.

Mr. MICHEL DUJA (Undecided Voter): (Through Translator) What scares me is the influx of foreign workers who will come to France and take work from French people. And I'm especially worried about this for my children and grandchildren.

BEARDSLEY: Some are predicting dire consequences for Europe and France if the constitution is rejected. The French foreign minister has warned there is no plan B. With eight days to go, Europe is holding its breath to see if the French will vote no to punish Chirac or put aside their fears and vote yes to a new future for Europe. For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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