- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 26, 2005

French President Jacques Chirac has planned a last-ditch televised appeal today to voters to support a proposed new European Union constitution in a national referendum Sunday.

But a string of polls now say a ragtag, underfinanced, ideologically chaotic coalition is poised to deliver a stunning rebuke to Mr. Chirac and the French political establishment, which would send the 25-nation bloc into a crisis in the process.

“I want Europe to move forward,” Claude Akriche, a 47-year-old Parisian computer analyst told the Agence France-Presse news agency.

“But I think Europe is mature enough to allow us to send our dinner back to the kitchen if it’s not good.”

Mr. Chirac’s speech today will be his latest effort to overcome what the polls say is a steady six- to eight-percentage-point lead by constitution opponents.

A rejection would be all the more startling because France has traditionally viewed itself as the engine for a stronger, more cohesive European Union, of which Paris sees itself dominating.

Already, leading “yes” advocates have begun pointing fingers over the cliff-hanger campaign.

Former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, an author of the mammoth, 448-article proposed constitution, said that past Europe-bashing by leading politicians came back to haunt them and that Mr. Chirac’s decision to hold a popular referendum had backfired.

Such votes “almost automatically slide into plebiscites on the present government,” Mr. Giscard said in an interview with Les Echos newspaper published yesterday.

United only in their opposition to the constitution, the “no” camp spans the gamut from far-right, anti-immigrant politician Jean-Marie Le Pen to far-left Trotskyists and anti-globalization campaigner Jose Bove.

Some see a “no” vote as a protest of Mr. Chirac’s government, the sluggish economy and an 8 percent jobless rate. Some argue that the constitution will dilute France’s sovereignty and concentrate power in unelected bureaucrats in Brussels. Some say the bulky, jargon-heavy constitution should be overhauled.

Many, including Mr. Bove and a number of center-left Socialists voters, see the constitution as a stalking horse for American-style “cowboy capitalism” that will shred France’s generous social safety net and put French workers and producers in direct competition with low-wage nations such as Poland.

Supporting the constitution “is to shoot yourself in the head,? Mr. Bove told a major rally last weekend in Paris. The constitution “is going to lock up Europe in an economically liberal model for 50 years.”

Despite denials by EU officials, many in France also see the constitution as clearing the way for eventual membership for Muslim Turkey, a move many in France oppose.

“The people who say there is no link between Turkey and the constitution are liars,” nationalist politician Philippe de Villiers told the Saturday rally.

Socialist former Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, who has joined his rival Mr. Chirac in backing the constitution, complained that the smorgasbord of complaints makes the debate even more difficult.

“All these ‘no’s are incompatible and absolutely unrealistic,” he said in a television interview Tuesday. “What are we going to do with them — put them in a cocktail shaker, mix them up and then ask the president to present this shaker to our astonished European partners?”

Austria yesterday became the eighth EU country to ratify the constitution, but the pact faces more obstacles even if France approves it Sunday.

Dutch voters, who go to the polls June 1, are even more hostile to the constitution, which must be ratified by all 25 countries to take effect. British Prime Minister Tony Blair also faces an uphill fight for ratification in a promised 2006 referendum.

Once unthinkable, a French rejection has sparked numerous scenarios about whether the European Union can press ahead with partial reform.

But Jean Daniel, editor of Le Nouvel Observateur, said French ambitions within the European Union would be permanently affected.

He wrote, “How will France gloss over the fact that it proved unworthy of the huge expectations pinned upon it and [was] indifferent to its role in history?”

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