- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 28, 2005

PARIS — Nothing in the French capital last night suggested that the fate of Europe as a united continent depended on the outcome of a national election in France today.

It was the warmest and probably busiest Saturday night Paris had seen so far this year, with thousands of people in outdoor restaurants and cafes or simply strolling the avenues.

French voters today will say “yes” or “no” to the proposed EU Constitution that would unite the 25-nation political federation under a European president and a stronger central government.

Despite a ban on last-minute campaigning, European leaders took their final shots at convincing the French to approve the constitution amid polls showing that the document is likely to be rejected.

“The constitution offers a massive improvement in our ability to tackle old and new security threats,” EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana wrote in yesterday’s International Herald Tribune.

His appeal to the French, as well as the Dutch, who are to vote Wednesday, urged voters “to play their part in Europe’s renewal.”

“Neither Europe nor the world could afford the self-inflicted wound of a rejection of the constitution,” he wrote.

Polling stations opened yesterday for voting in French overseas possessions, such as the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique.

Last-minute surveys in mainland France, where more than 95 percent of voters reside, showed mixed results.

One showed the “no” camp’s lead shrinking, giving a glimmer of hope for the supporters of the treaty, while another had the “no” vote maintaining a strong lead.

President Jacques Chirac’s ruling center-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) is campaigning for a “yes” vote alongside its junior partner in government, the Union for French Democracy, as well as the opposition Socialist Party and the Greens.

They are battling a “no” camp made up of the far-right National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the far-left Communist and Trotskyite parties, as well as nationalist Euroskeptics and a smattering of UMP and Socialist dissidents.

EU Industry Commissioner Guenter Verheugen said a “no” vote would be serious but not mark the end of European integration.

“I do not think it would be appropriate to talk about throwing in the towel and the end of European integration,” he told Austrian radio ORF.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said in a commentary published yesterday in the French newspaper Le Figaro: “A strong and proud Europe is unthinkable without France.”

Germany did not hold a referendum, and its lower house of parliament — the Bundestag — overwhelmingly approved the constitution this month, putting the pressure on the other half of the so-called “German-French motor” powering Europe since the time of Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer.

Chirac exit unlikely

Could Mr. Chirac follow the example of Mr. Schroeder and call an early election if voters punish him today by rejecting the EU Constitution? It’s unlikely, French political analysts say.

Mr. Schroeder put his job on the line by calling for new federal elections a year ahead of schedule after his Social Democrats lost a regional poll last Sunday.

Mr. Le Pen urged Mr. Chirac to take note of Mr. Schroeder’s example. Mr. Le Pen has been urging the government and Mr. Chirac to step aside if the constitution is rejected.

Socialist Henri Emmanuelli said the defeat for Mr. Schroeder’s party a week ago showed the dangers of shifting from the traditional policies espoused by Social Democrats toward the right, as Mr. Schroeder was seen to have done. Left-wing critics have long accused Mr. Chirac of being too far to the right.

Mr. Chirac has been trying for weeks to convince the French people not to treat today’s vote as a plebiscite on his government’s performance.

He has been burned once before: He dissolved parliament and called an early election in 1997 when his government’s popularity sank, and ended up suffering through five years of “cohabitation” in a government led by his Socialist foes.

“It was a failure when he did it before, so I don’t think he would do it again,” said political scientist Paul Bacot. “The disadvantages outweigh the advantages.”

What happened in Germany is unlikely to be uppermost in French voters’ minds.

“I don’t think it [Mr. Schroeder’s decision to call early elections] is going to have a big impact in any way,” said Francois Heisbourg, a political and foreign policy analyst.

Raffarin on skids

Moreover, Mr. Chirac has ruled out resigning if the EU referendum is voted down, although there is widespread speculation he will remove Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin after the vote. Mr. Raffarin’s popularity has hovered near record lows in the last few months.

Although Mr. Chirac is unlikely to call an election, he and his friend and ally Mr. Schroeder face some similar problems.

Voters punished the German government over its unpopular economic reforms and problems that include high unemployment. Many French voters say they will oppose the constitution to show their discontent with unemployment and government policies.

Belief in Mr. Schroeder has faded during his long stay in office. After 10 years as president, Mr. Chirac’s popularity sank to 39 percent in an opinion poll late last week — his lowest rating since the botched dissolution of parliament.

Whereas Mr. Schroeder and his government look isolated after last Sunday’s vote, Mr. Chirac can take consolation from the fact that most of the French Socialist Party’s leaders also back the constitution and stand to lose if voters reject it today.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports

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