French Polls Point to 'No' on EU Constitution

On Sunday, France will vote on whether to adopt the EU constitution. A string of successive polls show the "no" vote increasing its lead. But with at least 20 percent of voters still undecided, last-minute campaigning is feverish.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

In France, campaigning ends today for Sunday's referendum on the European Union constitution. A string of successive polls show the no campaign increasing its lead with at least 20 percent still undecided. Eleanor Beardsley reports that there's feverish last-minute campaigning.

(Soundbite of train)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY reporting:

Marlee Lewois(ph) is a sleepy bedroom community of Paris just a 40-minute train ride away on efficient public transport lines. As people return home from work at the end of the day, many gather in the local cafe. The talk these days is about little else than the referendum. Michel Robert(ph) and Jean Cadet(ph) are sharing a beer and arguing over whether the constitution is a good or bad idea for France. Robert, who worked his whole life in a multinational company, says France needs Europe.

Mr. MICHEL ROBERT (French Citizen): (Through Translator) Personally, I'm for the evolution of Europe so it can be a force that competes in the same league with the US and China. If we vote no, it's a big mistake that will set France back 10 to 15 years.

(Soundbite of cash register)

BEARDSLEY: Next door in the baker's shop, Everet Caldonne(ph), who is picking up a baguette for dinner, has a completely different viewpoint.

Mr. EVERET CALDONNE (French Citizen): (Through Translator) I'm voting no with a capital `N.' This constitution is the best way to become enslaved, politically because France will have no power and will lose its sovereignty, and economically because jobs will go, unemployment will increase and we'll end up with Chinese salaries and a loss of independence.

BEARDSLEY: That evening in Marlee Lewois, there is a rally for the yes campaign led by French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin. But many voters say they will vote no on Sunday to register their anger over the economic reform policies of President Chirac and his government. Seventy-nine-year-old Bernard(ph) and Angelle Marier(ph) are on their way to the rally, which is only a short walk from their house. The couple, who met during World War II, says the European constitution has nothing to do with the current French government.

Mr. BERNARD MARIER (French Citizen): (Through Translator) I'm voting yes because my grandfather fought in World War I. My father in World Wars I and II and I fought in World War II. My children, who are in their forties, have never known war, fear or hunger. We've had peace for 60 years, and that's good enough reason for me.

(Soundbite of music and people clapping)

BEARDSLEY: The rally began with a rousing rendition of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," the European anthem.

(Soundbite of rally)

Unidentified Man: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: After several leaders of the no campaign had been satisfactorily parodied, the crowd was urged to go out and be foot soldiers for the yes vote.

(Soundbite of rally)

Unidentified Man: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: The constitution would pave the way for a stronger and more unified European Union. The debate over such a plan has divided the country and fractured political parties. Many say it has even split friendships and families. Lauren Snaudon(ph) is a research fellow at the French Institute for International Relations. She says while European parliamentary elections rarely generated much interest in France, Sunday's vote is different.

Ms. LAUREN SNAUDON (French Institute for International Relations): People feel that because it's a constitution, this text will seal their fate for a very long time to come. So it's felt as being extremely important for them to go and vote.

BEARDSLEY: President Chirac made a last impassioned appeal in favor of the constitution on television last night. `To reject it,' he said, `would make it difficult for Europe and France to defend their values and way of life in a rapidly changing world.' Campaigning officially ends tonight. All of Europe must now wait until Sunday for France to decide the future of the European Union. For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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