Divisions Deepen After France Rejects EU Constitution

Lisa Bryant

Leftist militants wave placards reading "No, another Europe is possible" in Toulouse, southwestern France
The rejection by French voters of the European Constitution Sunday has plunged France into a political crisis. The no vote has hurt both the ruling conservative party of French President Jacques Chirac and the opposition Socialists.

The results were unequivocal. Nearly 55 percent of French voters cast their ballots against the European constitution Sunday despite an active campaign for the yes vote by France's two largest political parties: The Union for a Popular Movement party of French President Jacques Chirac, and the opposition Socialist party.

Late Sunday night, President Chirac appeared on national TV to confirm what the exit polls had indicated: That France had become the first European country to reject the EU charter.

Mr. Chirac said the French had expressed their concerns and expectations during the campaign. He said he had heard them, and vowed to give what he called "a new impulse to the government's actions."

Analysts say the French voted against the EU treaty for many reasons. Some, for example, feared they would lose generous benefits and jobs under a stronger, more free-market-oriented Europe. But many cast a protest vote against Mr. Chirac and his center-right government.

On Sunday, Mr. Chirac said he would soon announce changes in the government. Many observers believe the first change will be the departure of his unpopular prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin. Mr. Raffarin met with the French president Monday morning at the Elysee presidential palace, possibly, analysts say, to tender his resignation.

The short list of possible replacements includes French Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin and Mr. Chirac's rival, Nicolas Sarkozy, who heads his UMP party. Analysts also consider Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie another possible candidate as the country's next prime minister.

Sunday's rejection of the constitution amounts to one of the biggest setbacks of Mr. Chirac's marathon political career. The French president previously ruled out resigning if the constitution was rejected. But analysts believe it will likely dash the chances of 72-year-old Mr. Chirac from running for a third term in 2007.

In an interview on France-Info radio Monday morning, Socialist party leader Francois Hollande criticized the French president, and said a government reshuffle was insufficient.

Mr. Hollande said the French have expressed their anger toward the government in many ways. What's needed, he said, is real political change. But he said he did not believe Mr. Chirac was capable of initiating this change.

Mr. Chirac's conservative party is not the only one in disarray. The referendum deeply divided the opposition Socialists. It pitted Mr. Hollande against the party's number two leader, Laurent Fabius. Mr. Hollande has indicated he will not step down from power.

Now, observers are left wondering how both Mr. Chirac's conservatives and Mr. Holland's socialists will be able to rebuild their shattered ranks before presidential elections two years from now.

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