French voters go to the polls Sunday to decide whether to approve or reject the European Union's new constitutional treaty. Polls show those who are against the project have the upper edge, but they also show that a fifth of the electorate is still undecided. A French rejection of the treaty will have repercussions across the continent.
Supporters of the treaty, like French President Jacques Chirac, say a victory for the "no" side will kill the constitution, weaken the European Union and isolate France from its partners.
He says that a rejection of the treaty would be seen by other Europeans as a no to European integration and that it would open up a period of division, doubt and uncertainty. And, he warned his fellow citizens, it is an illusion to believe that the charter can be renegotiated because there is no plan "B."
Mr. Chirac, his government, and much of the political establishment are facing strong grassroots opposition whose leaders argue mainly that the proposed constitution would dismantle France's welfare state and hurt workers who, they say, are threatened by globalization.
Commentator Esther Leneman, of France's Europe One radio network, says there are deep-seated fears among the voters that the constitution encourages a competitive free market economic model that runs counter to the French way of doing things.
"People are saying that we have a very good system in the sense that, if you have a job, your job is protected; you have very good health coverage; you have very good pensions; and that this whole system is threatened by what they call Anglo-Saxon Europe," she said.
Supporters of the constitution like Pierre Lellouche, a deputy who belongs to Mr. Chirac's party, say that is a phony argument.
"Nobody is saying in this constitution that the French have to forget about their social security system, which is the most generous and the most in-deficit in the world, we can preserve our system. The question is whether this system can be sustained. That's a different question. It is not a constitutional question. It's a domestic political question," he said.
Although most of the opposition to the constitution is to be found on the French left, some nationalists also rail against the document, saying it is aimed at creating a European super-state, with all decisions being made by officials in Brussels. That is the argument of Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, another deputy from Mr. Chirac's party, but one who has broken with his president over the issue.
"The question for French people is do you want to stay real French people or do you want to belong to a super-state country, European country? My duty is to say to French people you cannot accept to end 1000 years of history; you cannot accept to give your power to people who are not elected; you cannot accept to end the story of a great country," he stressed.
The constitution was designed to make the European Union work more efficiently, now that it has 25 members. But the French do not seem to like the enlarged union. They fear competition from low cost economies in Eastern Europe. They fret that, because of the expansion, France no longer calls the tune in Brussels. And they are petrified at the idea that Turkey, with its huge population, could some day enter the bloc and out-vote France.
The German Bundesrat, or Upper House, Friday approved the constitution, making Germany the ninth EU member to do so. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and Dutch Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende, who faces a difficult referendum of his own on the constitution next week, were all campaigning in France for a "yes" vote Friday. But, according to the polls, their efforts may come too late.
The specter of a win for the opponents of the treaty would send a strong signal that France, one of the founding fathers of the 50-year-old European project, has finally lost faith in the idea of European integration. And that is what disturbs conservative deputy Pierre Lellouche.
"If a country like France, which was the architect of all of this, of bringing everybody together, says 'no,' I want national solutions and I want to preserve my system because it's better and it's more generous, and I don't want jobs to go to others, especially to the newcomers, the virus of renationalization will be reintroduced in the system. And once it's the case, you don't know where it is going to lead," he explained.
Mr. Lellouche fears that his fellow citizens, preoccupied with preserving their enviable way of life, with its 35 hour work week and six weeks of vacation a year, have forgotten the reason the union was created in the first place: to preserve stability and peace throughout the continent.