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Q&A: Chirac forced off Europe agenda

By CNN's European Political Editor Robin Oakley

President Jacques Chirac casts his referendum vote in Sarran, southwestern France.
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The future of the EU is riding on the outcome of the French referendum, says CNN's Robin Oakley.

France awaits a result that will decide the fate of the EU Constitution. CNN's Robin Oakley reports.
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Jacques Chirac

PARIS, France (CNN) -- France's vote on the European Constitution has become more of a referendum on the record of President Jacques Chirac and his government, says CNN European Political Editor Robin Oakley.

And the French president has failed to get his countrymen off domestic issues to back his vision of Europe's future enthusiastically, Oakley says.

Q: What are the French being asked?

OAKLEY: To approve the treaty embodying the new constitution for the European Union painfully agreed to by 25 nations' leaders after a plan was drawn up by a 200-strong panel of parliamentarians headed by Valery Giscard d'Estaing, a former president of France.

French opponents of the constitution say that the 25 nations would have to start again to agree to a new constitution. But the old one itself was a difficult compromise. One European leaders' summit under Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi broke down in disagreement over it, and it is doubtful if there would be the political will to start again.

Q: What is at stake?

OAKLEY: A great deal, both for French political leaders and the EU. President Jacques Chirac did not have to hold a referendum -- the Germans and the Austrians last week ratified the constitution through their parliaments, and the French Constitution did not make a referendum obligatory.

If the French vote "no," most analysts believe it would destroy any possibility of Chirac standing again for the presidency in 2007. Almost certainly he would sack his even more unpopular prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, making him the immediate scapegoat and trying to restore some political momentum.

The French opposition would also be badly riven if there is a "no" vote. Their leadership backed the "yes" campaign, but Laurent Fabius, a former prime minister, led a vigorous group of Socialists who opposed the constitution.

As for the EU as a whole, Jean-Claude Juncker, the Luxembourg prime minister who currently holds the rotating EU presidency, said that a "no" vote would be a disaster for Europe, too.

Romano Prodi, the former president of the European Commission, has warned that Europe could "break down" as a result of losing the constitution designed to make it work efficiently as a body of 25. And if a founding member of the EU as important as France said "no," the constitution would be dead in the water. It has to be approved by all 25 members.

Q: What is the likely outcome?

OAKLEY: French analysts are virtually all agreed that the nation is about to turn down the constitution. The last 15 opinion polls have all given the "no" campaigners a lead, and the "yes" campaign has sounded increasingly desperate, although one poll taken after Chirac's appeal to the nation Thursday did show the gap closing a little.

Even some of the government's advisers were admitting it was only a question of the size of the "no."

Q: Why has the "no" campaign apparently been so successful?

OAKLEY: Because referendums nearly always turn out to be not an answer to the question being asked but a verdict on the popularity of those asking the question.

The constitution is a complex 317-page document that few people have read. So people have concentrated not on the text but on the context.

All across Europe electorates seem to be in a mood to punish their governments. Prime Minister Tony Blair saw his majority slashed in the British general election. Berlusconi's coalition took a drubbing in Italy's regional elections.

So did German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats in the North Rhine Westphalia election this month. In France, the government is unpopular over the 10 percent unemployment, reforms that force public service employees to work longer for their pensions and the winding back of the 35-hour week.

Appeals by Chirac and Raffarin to the French to focus on Europe's future and not on kicking the government have largely fallen on deaf ears, despite the arrival of other EU leaders such as Schroeder and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero to support that case.

And many Socialists, who found themselves having to back Chirac in the last presidential election because his runoff opponent was the National Front leader Jean Marie Le Pen, have been reluctant to give Chirac the benefit of the doubt once again or to listen to their own leaders urging them that this is a vote not about France but about Europe.

The French nation is also strongly opposed to the possible entry into the EU of Turkey, which is due to start entry talks this year.

And French workers have come to believe that the constitution promotes "Anglo-Saxon liberal economics," embodying labour market reforms that work against job security and generous social welfare provisions, in opposition to their own traditional "social model."

(Actually, all the constitution does is to repeat economic language used in a series of earlier treaties that it codifies. But perception is everything in politics.)

Q: What will Chirac do if the French reject the constitution?

OAKLEY: Almost certainly he will drop Raffarin and reform his government. The three potential candidates being mooted are Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin, Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie and the UMP (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire) chairman, Nicolas Sarkozy, who is Chirac's rival for the presidential nomination in 2007. After that all is in the air.

Some fear Chirac would interpret a "no" vote as an instruction for him to become an uncooperative European. But nobody knows if he will declare that the EU Constitution is dead or seek to win some changes and bring it back to the French people. He himself has said that there is "no plan B" and no realistic chance of renegotiating the constitution.

He will also face considerable criticism from French business leaders for taking the gamble of calling the referendum on such a complicated issue. Already they are predicting that a "no" vote will harm investment in France because of the uncertainty.

Q: Can the EU manage without a new constitution?

OAKLEY: For a while, yes. It is currently operating under arrangements renegotiated in Nice a few years ago. But many EU leaders fear that without the changes embodied in the new constitution, the EU will remain insufficiently democratic, lacking in transparency and inefficient.

Without changes to the voting system and the size of the European Commission, they fear, they could become locked in decision gridlock. And without the appointment of an EU president and an EU foreign secretary, they believe they will continue to give a confused message to the world and punch below their combined diplomatic weight.

Q: If the French vote "no," will other countries continue to hold referendums?

OAKLEY: That depends partly on whether Chirac chooses to pronounce the constitution dead and on what the EU leaders decide when they get together at their next summit in mid-June. But certainly the Dutch will go ahead with their referendum on June 1.

The current EU president, Jean-Claude Juncker, has said that all other countries should continue with the ratification process. So far nine countries containing virtually half the EU population, including Spain, which also held a referendum, have ratified the constitution treaty.

It has been suggested that the British government would be only too pleased to drop a referendum given that two-thirds of the British population currently tell pollsters they are opposed to the treaty.

But ministers might want to continue with a British referendum, even if they risk a defeat. If there is to be a European constitution renegotiation at some stage, they would not want all the concessions to be made to suit the French.

If a British referendum rejected the constitution too for reasons completely contrary to any French "non," then that would supplement the future British bargaining position.

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