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Chirac Urges Approval of EU Constitution in Sunday's Referendum


Three days before France holds a referendum on the European constitution, French President Jacques Chirac made a last appeal Thursday for a yes vote. But, French voters appear increasingly unlikely to heed their president's advice.

Mr. Chirac offered a passionate defense of the European constitution, saying it would strengthen Europe and France.

Mr. Chirac said the treaty would strengthen France's voice in Europe. He said the country's votes at the European Council would increase by 50 percent if the constitution is approved. It will allow France to better defend its interests and remain a powerful force within Europe.

Mr. Chirac spoke on national radio and television from his office at the Elysee palace, flanked by European and French flags.

A "no" by French voters Sunday means a "no" to Europe, Mr. Chirac said. It will open up a time of doubts and divisions. It will stall the European project. France will be less strong, he said, less capable of defending its interests.

Mr. Chirac also tried to soothe French fears that they will lose their jobs and social benefits under a stronger, and larger Europe. And he said the French would vote in another referendum on Turkey's admission to the EU, another French fear.

This is Mr. Chirac's third televised appearance to argue in favor of the European constitution. The upcoming referendum has dominated newspapers, television talk shows, and dinner-table conversations in France for weeks.

But Mr. Chirac's arguments have yet to convince the majority of French voters. Recent polls, including one published on Thursday, suggest the French will reject the charter at the polls Sunday. But one in five voters remains undecided.

Following Mr. Chirac's address Thursday night, French analyst Stephan Rozes offered praise at his performance.

The only problem, Mr. Rozes said in remarks to France Info radio, is that Mr. Chirac intervened at the end of the debate and after supporters of the constitution have spent more time criticizing naysayers than offering positive arguments defending the treaty.

A French rejection of the constitution would be a major political blow for Mr. Chirac whose popularity has plunged to its lowest levels in eight years. Mr. Chirac has ruled out resigning if the charter is rejected. But pundits predict his unpopular prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, will likely lose his job.

If the "no" vote carries the day Sunday, France would become the first European Union country to vote down the new constitution. But it may not be the last. The Dutch will vote in a similar referendum June first, and they may also reject the constitution.

In theory, all 25 EU members must ratify the charter by parliamentary vote or by referendum for it to go into effect. Some experts predict a compromise might be found to save the charter, if only France votes against it. But if two or more countries reject the constitution that

may spell the end of the European dream of further integration - at least for now.

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