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France Braces for Sunday's Key Vote on EU Constitution


French voters go to the polls Sunday for a referendum on the proposed European Union constitution. The latest polls indicate that voters will reject the treaty, but they also show that one fifth of the electorate is undecided.

The Loire river is the traditional dividing line between northern and southern France. The valley through which the river flows is a land of magnificent castles, spectacular formal gardens and towns that preserve their 15th Century heritage while keeping up with modern times.

In the Loire Valley, as in the rest of France, the only topic of conversation these days is the upcoming vote on the EU constitution.

The French government has been campaigning hard for a "yes" vote, calling the document the next big step toward European integration and a way to increase Europe's role in world affairs.

But opponents of the constitution are gaining the upper hand and may defeat the project at the polls Sunday, killing the new EU charter, undermining France's role in the 25-member bloc and causing a crisis of confidence in the EU.

Still, according to the polls, 20 percent of the voters have not made up their minds which way they should vote. Winemaker Michel Constant is one of them. As a businessman who complains about French bureaucracy, he hopes the European constitution will force France to become more competitive on world markets. But he is also afraid that it could lead to the creation of a European super-state.

"It's a very difficult choice because, on the one hand, it helps the French government to be not so crazy in bureaucracy and, on the other hand, it's not the way I hope Europe will go," he said.

The polls say many undecided voters like Mr. Constant will make up their minds at the very last minute.

Pierre Boisseau, an agronomist at the University of Tours, has made up his mind. He will vote "no". Like many other French citizens, he believes the constitution is an attempt to dismantle the European welfare state through the encouragement of a more deregulated, less protective economy where health and other benefits could be threatened. He is also afraid that the constitution's call for progressively open markets will put France and Europe at the mercy of global economic forces.

"This text doesn't protect the European market, for example, like in U.S.A. and Japan," Mr. Boisseau said. "They protect their market."

Other inhabitants of the Loire Valley have a different perspective. David Brault is a cheesemaker who thinks the EU has been good for French exporters. He says he will vote "yes" in the hope that the constitution will further unify Europe politically as well as economically and bring Eastern European wage levels and working conditions up to French standards instead of the other way around.

"I think it's too late right now to go back," he said. "Anyway, we decided a few years ago to get into this European project. So I think that the next step forward is to move to a new stage. So I think it's a good one for France and other countries in Europe."

The constitution means something different to nearly every voter in France. Pollsters say many of the document's opponents want to use their vote to show discontent with President Jacques Chirac's economic policies and high unemployment in France. If they have their way, experts say the partisans of a "no" vote will trigger a period of paralysis inside the EU and cause huge repercussions on the French political scene.

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