France Decides Fate of EU Constitution
PARIS (AP) _ Voters in France faced a historic choice Sunday as they cast ballots in a referendum on the European Union’s first constitution _ a charter designed to pull the nations of Europe together but that has bitterly divided citizens in this cradle of continental unity.
Nearly 42 million voters were eligible to cast ballots in the pivotal vote on the charter, which polls suggest the French will reject. The constitution must be ratified by all 25 EU member states before it can take effect in 2006 so a French ``no″ could kill it.
Polling stations opened at 8 a.m. and were to close at 8 p.m., except in Paris and Lyon, huge population centers where voting was to end at 10 p.m. The first exit poll results were expected Sunday evening.
About 1.5 million voters in France’s overseas territories from the Caribbean to Polynesia cast ballots on Saturday, with results kept under wraps until all voting concludes.
The French traditionally tend to vote later rather than earlier, and only a handful of people lined up at polling stations early Sunday near the site where the Bastille prison _ stormed at the start of the French Revolution _ once stood in central Paris.
Across the Seine River, the streets and sidewalks in the Left Bank neighborhood of Montparnasse were covered with flyers pushing for a ``yes″ vote.
``Sunday, Think Before Voting,″ read the flyers, comparing the referendum to France’s 2002 election when President Jacques Chirac faced down extreme-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen.
A collective French ``oui″ _ coupled with improbable approval in another referendum Wednesday in the Netherlands, where opposition is running at about 60 percent _ 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.
Arnaud Senlis, 27, carrying his two-year-old son on his shoulders, was among those casting a ``yes″ ballot.
``I never thought twice about it,″ he said, complaining that the intense debate ahead of Sunday’s vote ``seemed more about national politics and politicians’ personal ambitions than a real debate about Europe’s future.″
Katia Volman, a 22-year-old student, left her ballot blank, saying the issues were too complicated to fully digest.
``I had so many reasons to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ so I left it blank and that way I won’t regret my decision two days later,″ she said.
The ``yes″ camp had desperately sought to capture votes from undecided citizens like Volman. Polls have shown they make up some 20 percent of the electorate, giving them a crucial role in deciding the constitution’s fate.
The possibility that the EU’s latest bold attempt to knit together its club of nations could wind up stillborn in polarized 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 Center 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’s government 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 sovereignty and trigger an influx of cheap labor 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. Chirac’s popularity ratings have plunged to 39 percent in recent weeks, and there was widespread speculation that a ``no″ would force 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.
The constitution’s opponents, who range from Le Pen, the extreme-right leader, and Socialist former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius, have suggested the charter could be re-negotiated to suit French tastes.
But Chirac has warned that a ``no″ would mean ``Europe would be broken down, searching for an impossible consensus.″
Associated Press reporter Angela Doland contributed to this report.