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France And The EU Referendum

The most recent polls have shown French voters going back and forth in their support for the proposed European Union Constitution. Surveys ahead of the May 29th referendum show either the "yes" or the "no" camp winning by anywhere between four and six percentage points.

The constitutional treaty aims at simplifying the European Union's decision-making process. It would reduce the instances in which a member state can veto a decision and make possible decisions under a qualified majority system: at least 55% of states representing at least 65% of the total EU population.

Jean-Dominique Giuliani is President of the Paris-based Robert Schuman Foundation, an advocacy group that is campaigning in favor the European Constitution.

He says such reforms are necessary because there were six founding members of the bloc in the 1950s as opposed to 25 now. There will be 27 if Bulgaria and Romania, as expected, join the European Union two years from now. Mr. Giuliani says this requires a significant change in the way the bloc's institutions are run.

Mr. Giuliani also says the treaty will make the bloc more democratic by strengthening the powers of the elected European Parliament.

So far, a handful of countries have ratified the Constitution, mostly by parliamentary vote.

However, the treaty requires ratification by all 25 current member states to go into effect, which means that rejection by France or by any other member state will kill the constitution. That explains why all European eyes have now turned to France and Sunday's referendum.

President Jacques Chirac and the leader of the main opposition Socialist party, Francois Hollande, both support the proposed constitution.

President Jacques Chirac of France
Mr. Chirac argues that making the referendum will raise the Union's voice in world affairs and make it more competitive relative to the United States and emerging powers like China, India and Brazil.

Speaking at a televised debate last month, President Chirac argued the treaty would also protect France's extensive social safety net and its generous levels of social protection. However, opponents categorically reject the president's views.

Bernard Cassen is the honorary president of ATTAC, a group critical of economic globalization that has campaigned vigorously against the proposed constitution.

He says the treaty does not protect the rights of workers strongly and specifically enough and opens the door to unbridled free-market capitalism that could undermine these very rights.

But Jean-Dominique Giuliani of the Robert Schuman Foundation says free trade policies have always been at the core of European integration.

He says free trade is the main reason for the bloc's current prosperity and economic power. Mr. Giulani insists that such policies would be difficult to reverse and that even if they were, a return to protectionism would hurt the country's economy.

Meanwhile, conservative opponents of the European Union Constitution fear a loss of national sovereignty if all 25 member states ratify the document.

The Constitution therefore, faces serious opposition both on the left and on the right.

The uncertainty about the outcome of the French vote raises the question of whether the treaty could be renegotiated if France -- or any other country -- rejects it.

Mr. Chirac and his government have insisted that renegotiation is not an option -- adding that a "no" vote would decisively weaken French influence in the European Union.

However, Bernard Cassen dismisses that view.He says President Chirac and other supporters of the "yes" campaign are in a state of panic about French voters possibly rejecting the proposed Constitution. Mr. Cassen adds that Mr. Chirac and other mainstream political leaders would use any argument to encourage voters to ratify the treaty.

There is no clear consensus among scholars on what will happen to the European integration process if France rejects the proposed Constitution. But observers on both sides of the debate argue that a victory by the "no" camp would be a significant political setback for President Chirac.

This report was broadcast on the VOA Focus Program. To see more Focus stories click here.