France Rejects European Constitution

A voter picks up
A voter picks up "yes" and "no" ballots at a polling station in Nice in southern France. Turnout for the referendum on a European constitution was high, as was the margin of defeat for a measure supported by the nation's governing elite. (By Eric Gaillard -- Reuters)
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 30, 2005

PARIS, May 29 -- Unhappy French voters on Sunday derailed plans to further erase political and economic barriers in Europe, decisively rejecting the proposed European constitution and thumbing their noses at the country's governing elite, which had pleaded for approval of the measure.

The margin of defeat was wide, with about 56 percent voting against the constitution, and voter turnout was high. Opposition leaders harnessed widespread disenchantment over a variety of issues, including the unpopularity of President Jacques Chirac, the weakness of the French economy and fears that the country would lose its clout to a strengthened European central government.

The French defeat throws into confusion -- for now -- the campaign to fashion a constitution for Europe, since each of the 25 countries that belong to the European Union must approve the document before it can take effect.

The French vote does not mean the end of the European Union, which will continue to function under rules adopted by treaty in 2000. But it will freeze efforts to give more authority to the central European government in Brussels, such as the power to set foreign policy as well as to regulate fisheries, housing and myriad other issues.

"There is no longer a constitution," said Philippe de Villiers, leader of Movement For France, a nationalist party that had warned that France would suffer if the European Union continued to expand its borders to include poorer countries such as Turkey. "We need to reconstruct Europe. This vote says there is a real difference in this country between the institutions and what the people really want."

In a brief televised address shortly after the polls closed, Chirac said he accepted the will of the voters. "France has expressed itself democratically," said Chirac, who had lobbied heavily for approval of the constitution. "It is your sovereign decision."

"But let's not be mistaken," he added. "The decision of France inevitably creates a difficult context for the defense of our interests in Europe."

Chirac did not comment on his own political future but hinted that in the coming days he would announce a shake-up in the government, which has sagged in opinion polls. Critics amplified their calls for him to resign before his term ends in 2007. Chirac has not ruled out running for reelection, but his already weak political standing was hurt even more by the referendum results.

E.U. leaders held out hope that they could salvage the constitutional campaign. They noted that nine countries had already given their assent and insisted that other members be allowed their say as well. If France remains the lone holdout, backers of the constitution suggested, another referendum could be held and French voters might be cajoled into approving the document.

"The European process does not come to a halt today," Luxembourg's prime minister, Jean-Claude Juncker, who holds the rotating E.U. presidency, said at a news conference at the Brussels headquarters. "The ratification procedure must be pursued in other countries."

But the constitution could run into more trouble Wednesday, when voters in the Netherlands are scheduled to hold a nonbinding referendum. Opinion polls show that a majority of Dutch voters are inclined to vote no. If the Dutch join the French in opposition, some lawmakers and analysts said the constitution might have to be scrapped or renegotiated.

The French revolt against a stronger Europe marks a reversal of its historical support for greater unity with its continental neighbors. The origins of the European Union can be traced to an agreement forged a half-century ago by France and Germany to combine their coal and steel industries.

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