|A voter picks up a "no" ballot in a polling station in Paris|
French voters have rejected the European Union's draft constitution, dealing a personal setback to President Jacques Chirac and plunging the 25-nation bloc into what could be a long period of uncertainty. Exit polls by three polling organizations show 55 percent of French voters said no to the charter in Sunday's referendum.
President Chirac, who campaigned strongly for the constitution, acknowledged the defeat shortly after the results of the referendum were announced.
He says France's decision will inevitably create a difficult climate for the defense of its interests in the European Union.
The French president also says he will announce decisions on his government in the next few days. He is expected to dismiss unpopular prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin.
The result of the referendum on the E.U. constitution has thrown French politics into turmoil. Mr. Chirac and most of the Socialist opposition were in favor of the treaty, but they ran into fierce opposition from a disparate array of forces, including the far right, communists, nationalists, dissident Socialists and anti-globalization groups.
Supporters of the constitution maintained that the charter would help seal France's ambitions for greater European political unity. Opponents argued that it would entrench free-market economics, destroy France's welfare state and send French jobs to low-cost countries in Eastern Europe. Many who voted no also wanted to punish Mr. Chirac for his economic policies and France's 10 percent unemployment.
But if the result roiled French politics, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw says it also cast doubts about the future of the E.U.
"The result raises profound questions for all of us about the future direction of Europe, about the challenges to us from the rest of the world, about the ability of the European Union to respond to these challenges and to the demands of its citizens," Mr. Straw says.
Mr. Straw is calling for a period of reflection on the results of the French referendum and a similar Dutch referendum on the charter that will be held on Wednesday. There, too, the no vote is expected to win, primarily because of strong anti-immigration sentiment.
E.U. leaders have said that other member states should continue the ratification process despite France's rejection of the constitution. Technically, if one member country rejects the document, it will not go into effect, and the E.U. will continue to function under its current rules.
But the rejection of the charter by an important founding member of the group like France means that the E.U. will have to scale back its ambitious plans to admit new members, develop a common immigration policy and further liberalize the workings of Europe's internal market.