- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 21, 2005

PARIS — La Correze, a lush region deep in rural France, has a proud tradition of saying no.

The area refused to capitulate to the Nazis in World War II, and its residents rejected the Maastricht Treaty by a clear 54 percent majority in 1992 — deaf even then to the calls for a yes vote from two of the region’s most famous sons.

La Correze, in south-central France, is the fiefdom of French President Jacques Chirac and of Francois Hollande, the leader of the Socialist opposition.

From opposite ends of the political spectrum, both men are desperately pushing for a yes vote in next Sunday’s referendum on the European Constitution.

In their own back yards, however, it looks as if they will be given a bloody nose. Despite their best efforts, this traditional farming community, where cows and humans vie for demographic supremacy, is likely to vote no once more.

Etienne Patier is among those resisting the constitution, which aims to streamline decision making in the European Union and must be ratified by all 25 member states.

The grandson of a local resistance hero and Cabinet minister in Charles de Gaulle’s postwar government, Mr. Patier “cannot stomach” seeing the country’s political elite, from the left and right, campaigning for the yes vote hand in hand.

“On the one hand, Chirac argues that the constitution will reinforce France’s weight in Europe,” he said. “But other yes men claim that we must merge into a greater Europe to survive. You can’t have it both ways. De Gaulle would not have stood for it.”

Five successive French opinion polls have put the no camp ahead. A further poll to be published Monday in the magazine L’Express suggests that 53 percent would vote against the constitution.

The same poll brought further bad news for Mr. Chirac as his personal rating fell nine points to 39 percent, a three-year low.

In La Correze at least, where Mr. Chirac’s Union for a Popular Movement party, known by its French acronym UMP, still dominates, the president remains a hugely popular figure, having risen through local politics before being catapulted into national government.

He and his wife, Bernadette, stay frequently at their country home, the 16th-century Chateau de Bity, and Mrs. Chirac is a powerful figure in local politics — a regional councilor and deputy mayor of Sarran, a village with a population of 280 but home to the $5 million Jacques Chirac Museum.

Mr. Hollande also holds court in the area, as mayor of the socialist stronghold of Tulle. Although a relative newcomer to the region — he was shipped in by the late Socialist president, Francois Mitterrand, in 1981 — the Socialists overran several bastions of “La Chiraquie” in regional and European elections last year.

While officially Chirac loyalists back their leader, it seems that many local Correziens intend not to toe the line, and some plan to vote yes reluctantly.

“I will vote yes with a heavy heart,” said Mayor Pascal Coste of Beynac. “Yes, because we need a road map for an enlarged Europe, and a third way between unworkable Socialism and unbridled liberalism. But I’ve told the Chiracs that a yes is not a blank check,” he said.

“We were already duped with the Maastricht and the Nice treaties. We won’t stand for it a third time.”

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