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.
Since then, many French political leaders -- including Chirac -- have pushed for a more integrated Europe as a political and economic counterweight to the United States and China. Former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing helped draft the proposed constitution and lobbied for its passage, a stance shared by most French political leaders as well as the business and media elite.
But dissatisfaction has bubbled under the surface in France and in other European countries that have been plagued for years by high unemployment and uncertainty over who should belong in the European club.
Many French voters who opposed the constitution said they were angry that they had not been given a chance to vote on E.U. expansion from 15 to 25 members last year, pulling in most of Eastern Europe. The prospect that Europe's boundaries might be extended even further -- to Muslim Turkey and impoverished Ukraine -- has also unsettled many people in France.
"I voted no out of a concern for democracy," said Gilles Noeul, 28, an engineer who attended an opposition victory rally Sunday night in Paris. "For me, the decisions should not be made by Europe, but by each nation. I want France to make decisions for herself."
Economic anxieties played a big role in the referendum campaign. With France mired in double-digit unemployment rates, opponents said they worried that the constitution would enable low-wage workers from Eastern Europe to migrate to France and compete for scarce jobs. Others complained that the constitution increased the odds that French taxpayers would have to send more money to Brussels, which would in turn funnel it to poorer E.U. members.
Fatouma Diallo, 19, a nursing student in Paris, said she and many of her friends fretted that their job prospects would worsen under a stronger E.U. "They are already taking money from our paychecks," she said. "These changes are going to affect my generation more than others."
Even some supporters of the constitution acknowledged that the leaders of their side had failed to make a strong enough case.
Michel Dumont, a deputy mayor in Paris who favored approval of the referendum, said France had waited too long to wrestle with the question of what its proper place in Europe should be.
"It's the first time in many years that we've had a real debate on this question," Dumont said. "For the first time, really, people are confronted with this profound question on the future of Europe."
Other French elected leaders who had pushed for approval of the constitution said they were sobered by the results but pledged to adhere to the popular will.
"It was an occasion for a big debate for Europe, and the majority of French people said no," said Nicolas Sarkozy, chairman of the ruling party, the Union for a Popular Movement, and a Chirac rival who plans to run for president in 2007. "I regret that the project of the E.U. coalition can no longer stay the way we would like it to go."
Special correspondent Erika Lorentzsen contributed to this report.