PARIS — French voters shook the European political establishment yesterday by issuing a resounding “non” to a proposed constitution for the continent, throwing into question plans for further integration.
Even though officials of the European Union insisted that the ratification process would continue in the other member states, the French rebuff could prove fatal for the 470-page treaty that was meant to make the union run more smoothly.
The Interior Ministry said last night that, with 96 percent of the votes counted, 55.5 percent of voters had said “no,” while 44.5 percent had sided in favor of the document. Exit polls had suggested an outcome of 55 percent to 45 percent.
The large gap made it less likely that the same text would be resubmitted for a future vote, as was the case in Denmark with the 1992 Maastricht Treaty — the main pillar of EU integration.
French President Jacques Chirac, the chief proponent of the constitution, told the nation in a televised address soon after the polls closed at 10 p.m. that he was “hugely disappointed” with the result.
“Nevertheless, our ambitions and interests are profoundly linked to Europe. France, a founder member of the union, remains, naturally, within the union,” he said. “France’s decision inevitably creates a difficult context for defending our interests in Europe.”
Nine countries have ratified the constitution, either by a referendum or a parliament vote. The Netherlands is expected to reject it on Wednesday.
The treaty to establish the constitution was signed in Rome last fall by the heads of state of all 25 EU members after exhausting negotiations.
EU officials had admitted in the weeks before yesterday’s referendum that there was no “plan B” if the French voted “no.” They now face tough decisions that could affect half a century of European integration.
One option, officials said, is to rewrite the constitution — or at least parts of it — to make it more acceptable to voters. Another is to decide that a majority — rather than every EU member — has to say “yes” for the document to take effect. A third scenario is to abandon the text and try to implement its main goals through other means.
“The result raises profound questions for all of us about the future direction of Europe,” British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said in London last night, calling for a “period of reflection.”
To a large degree, the constitution is a compilation of existing EU treaties. For the first time, however, it proposes a full-time president instead of the current six-month rotation among the member states. It also introduces an EU foreign minister and gives more power to the European Parliament.
Opponents of the document argue that it would create a superstate and diminish the sovereignty of nation-states. Supporters disagree, saying it simply reinforces already existing policies and mechanisms, and would make the enlarged union work better by streamlining decision-making.
Analysts and voters said yesterday that the treaty’s defeat in France had to do more with potential membership for Turkey and the electorate’s dissatisfaction with the French political class than with the document itself, which hardly anyone had read.
They said Mr. Chirac’s declining popularity, along with that of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, led many voters to vote “no” if only to embarrass their government.
Mr. Chirac, who has been president for a decade, did not indicate that he would consider stepping down, although he hinted he might dismiss Mr. Raffarin. His most likely replacement is said to be Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin, who was foreign minister when the war in Iraq began in 2003.
Yesterday’s result, however, is seen here as making it impossible for Mr. Chirac to run for a third term in two years.
Polling stations opened at 8 a.m., and many Parisians lined up early to beat forecast rain showers, which did not materialize until the evening. The turnout was more than 70 percent.
“I voted ‘yes’ because I care about Europe,” said Maria, a 25-year-old hotel worker who asked that only her first name be used. “Many of the opponents of the constitution care only about themselves.”
But Michel, a 36-year-old civil servant, said that he and many of his colleagues had cast “no” ballots.
“I have friends who were laid off because some of our work was supposed to be done by the EU,” he said. “But we still bear most of the burden, and Brussels takes all the credit.”