PARIS – In an attempt to avert a resounding French rejection of a proposed European Constitution, President Jacques Chirac told voters Thursday they have a “historic responsibility” to approve the proposal.
Chirac’s prime-time speech marked the official end of the campaign ahead of Sunday’s referendum and reflected the measure’s high stakes and darkening prospects. Opinion polls predict that French voters will turn down the bid to speed the continent’s political integration by strengthening institutions such as the European Union’s presidency.
Polls suggest that many French citizens are disgruntled with their government and the EU and seem eager to punish both. Blue-collar voters in particular worry about France’s stubborn unemployment and economic stagnation. For many, the constitution symbolizes an aloof, fast-growing EU bureaucracy and the recent addition of 10 countries to the alliance threatens to endanger French living standards by weakening social programs, spurring immigration and driving jobs to low-wage countries.
Chirac urged voters not to hurt France and Europe by using the referendum to express generalized displeasure.
“The rejection of the treaty will be seen by Europeans as a no to Europe,” Chirac warned. “It will open a period of division, of doubt, of uncertainty. … What a responsibility before history if France, a founding country of Europe, caused the risk of breaking the union of our continent.”
The blow would be especially hard because France, along with Germany, has been the political and economic motor of the European Union for five decades. French leaders argue that a unified Europe augments their nation’s global influence and builds a counterweight to the United States, China and other global power blocs.
A “no” vote Sunday would by no means destroy the European Union, which would continue to function based on previous treaties. But it would stall, if not cripple, Europe’s attempt to become a more unified political entity.
The constitution tries to streamline decision-making by establishing a two-year EU presidency rather than the current six-month rotation; creating the positions of alliance foreign minister; and enabling some initiatives to be approved by a majority of the member states, rather than by the unanimous vote now often required.
“Europe can’t advance without France,” acknowledged Franco Frattini, vice president of the EU’s governing commission, in an interview this week. “If there were a negative result, we would have all lost a great opportunity, not just the French. Because the conclusion will be that, for now, the constitution will not take effect.”
All 25 EU members must approve the constitution, either through a referendum or passage in a legislature, for it to go into effect. Chirac and others have warned that there will be no negotiation or new opportunity to vote on this text. It would probably take several years to hold a new vote or, especially, to rewrite the document.