E.U. Constitution Faces Key Test in France

French farmer Pierre Mercier de Beaurouvre surveys one of his fields, with the village of Rahay in the background. Like many other farmers, he plans to vote no on the proposed E.U. constitution.
French farmer Pierre Mercier de Beaurouvre surveys one of his fields, with the village of Rahay in the background. Like many other farmers, he plans to vote no on the proposed E.U. constitution. (By Glenn Frankel -- The Washington Post)
By Glenn Frankel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 23, 2005

RAHAY, France -- The tart red wine on the kitchen table in Pierre Mercier de Beaurouvre's farmhouse was made in France. So were the garlicky sausages, the duck pâte, the eggs, bacon, cream and herbs in his omelet, the potato chips, the gherkins -- even the table salt. And so is the way of life on the 500-acre family farm where this ex-paratrooper grows wheat, corn and herbs on land his wife's ancestors have tilled for more than two centuries.

But as far as he is concerned it is a way of life that is under siege -- from bureaucrats in Paris and Brussels with their regulations and high taxes, and from foreign countries whose cheap products and low-waged workers threaten French industries and jobs. And because he wants to protect his quality of life, de Beaurouvre says he plans to vote against the draft European Union constitution in a national referendum on Sunday.

"The biggest problem is I no longer believe I'm governing myself," said de Beaurouvre, as he sat down for a meal and a chat the other day on this Loire Valley farm, some 100 miles southwest of Paris. In the new Europe envisaged in the constitution, he said, "We will no longer be the boss in our own house."

For more than five decades, France and its political leaders have been at the heart of the historic project to unify Europe. But to the great surprise of the political elite here, the constitution -- a document written largely by a former French president and championed by the current one -- has run into serious problems, with poll after poll suggesting it could go down to defeat.

Defeat in France on May 29 could mean defeat for the document in all of Europe; the rules say that adoption requires approval by all 25 member countries. So far six countries have said yes.

French voters on both the left and right have found reasons to reject the 380-page document, defying pleas from the country's two major parties, both of which officially support it.

Critics on the left contend that the constitution enshrines free-market principles that would undermine French values and damage the country's elaborate social welfare network. Conservatives such as de Beaurouvre believe it would vest too much power in a faceless and unaccountable bureaucracy, transfer more French funds to former communist countries in Eastern Europe that joined last year, and open the door for membership to Turkey, a predominantly Muslim country.

Many voters also appear eager to punish Jacques Chirac, the 72-year-old president, whom critics contend has lost touch with the concerns of the middle and working class and who has staked his reputation on winning the referendum that he insisted upon holding. But underlying the entire debate is a deep sense of unease and disaffection about the French nation -- its economy, its future and its place in the world.

"In France, a referendum always becomes a plebiscite -- it opens all the doors and all the windows to many things," said Jacques Lang, the former Socialist minister of culture. Opponents are not saying "no to Europe," said Lang, but rather "no to Chirac and the government and no to the political system. People are very angry and very anxious, and so this is how they vote."

Supporters of the constitution offer sometimes contradictory arguments in its favor.

Some contend the document is nothing more than a treaty designed to modernize and streamline decision making in the European Union to take into account the union's expansion from 15 to 25 member states a year ago. They insist the document, which was drafted over 18 months by a special convention chaired by former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing, does not fundamentally alter how the E.U. works or further restrict the sovereignty of its members.

At the same time, Chirac has told French voters it will create a stronger, more cohesive Europe that will be able to stand up in the world, preserve social welfare programs and keep out "ultra-liberalism," as American-style free-market economics is known here. It would be in the U.S. interest to defeat the constitution, Chirac said on TV, calling that a reason to approve it.

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