French vote in key EU referendum

Voters in France faced an historic choice today as they cast ballots in a referendum on the European Union’s first constitution.

Voters in France faced an historic choice today as they cast ballots in a referendum on the European Union’s first constitution.

Nearly 42 million voters were eligible to vote on the charter, which polls widely predicting the French will be the first in Europe to reject. The constitution must be ratified by all 25 EU member states before it can take effect in 2006.

Polling stations opened at 8am (7am Irish time) and were to close at 8pm, except in the cities of Paris and Lyon, where voting was to end at 10pm. The first exit poll results were expected shortly afterwards.

About 1.5 million voters in France’s overseas territories from the Caribbean to Polynesia cast their ballots yesterday, with the results to be kept under wraps until the end of voting in mainland France.

A collective French “oui” – coupled with improbable approval in another referendum on Wednesday in the Netherlands, where opposition is running at about 60% – could give the charter unstoppable momentum as a dozen other nations decide its fate in the coming months.

But a “non” would resonate even more powerfully across the continent: in 1951, two Frenchmen – Robert Schuman and Jean Monnet – launched the six-nation European Coal and Steel Community, the precursor to today’s EU.

The possibility that the EU’s latest bold attempt to knit together its club of nations could wind up stillborn in polarised France had many wondering what might lie ahead.

“If there was to be a French ‘no’ vote – a serious big rejection of the treaty – followed by a rejection in the Netherlands, then I think that this treaty is in effect dead,” said John Palmer, an analyst with the European Policy Centre in Brussels, Belgium.

“The danger then would be that we would enter a period of profound stagnation, maybe for two, three or more years, until we have new elections in France and some of the other key countries,” he said.

Backers say the constitution, which EU leaders signed in October, will streamline EU operations and decision-making, make the bloc more accessible to its 450 million citizens, and give it a president and foreign minister so it can speak with one voice in world affairs.

Opponents fear it will strip nations of national identity and sovereignty and trigger an influx of cheap labour just as European powers, such as France and Germany, struggle to contain double-digit unemployment.

Nine nations – Austria, Hungary, Italy, Germany, Greece, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain – already have ratified it by referendum or parliamentary vote.

While a defeat would shake the EU to its core, it could plunge France – one of the architects of the project – into political chaos. President Jacques Chirac’s popularity ratings have plunged to 39% in recent weeks, and there was widespread speculation that a “no” would prompt him to fire unpopular Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin.

If the French reject the treaty, Chirac would suffer the humiliation of becoming only the second leader, after Gen Charles de Gaulle, to lose a referendum since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958.

France’s opponents, who range from extreme-right leader Jean-Marie le Pen and Socialist former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius, have suggested the charter could be re-negotiated and altered to suit French tastes.

But Chirac has shot down that notion, warning that a ”no” would mean “Europe would be broken down, searching for an impossible consensus”.

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