With polls showing that the majority of French may vote against the new European constitution next month, French President Jacques Chirac made a long-awaited, public defense of the new charter Thursday night. Mr. Chirac held a televised debate with dozens of young French on the merits of belonging to the European Union.

Jacques Chirac
Mr. Chirac and his center-right party face a daunting task between now and May 29, when the French vote in a referendum on the new European constitution. A series of polls, including one published Thursday, show that more than half of all French are likely to vote against the charter. That may make France the first of the European Union's 25 members to reject it.

Looking relaxed in a gray checked shirt and dark suit, Mr. Chirac offered a spirited defense of the constitution before a hand-picked audience of 80 young adults. If French and other Europeans wanted to defend their values of democracy, human rights and peace in an ever larger territory, Mr. Chirac

said - if they wanted to leave to their children a peaceful Europe - Europe must be strong.

The French president said other countries - including China, India and the United States - would be trying to promote their own interests. Europe must be unified in the face of these competing interests.

Asked to offer precise benefits of a more integrated European Union, Mr. Chirac ticked off a number.

He said basic values were at stake when it came to voting for the new constitution. European unity extended to issues like monetary union, fighting illegal immigration - even protecting France's efforts to preserve its cultural heritage, and equality between women and men.

But Mr. Chirac's audience was clearly skeptical.

One 23-year-old woman, who identified herself as Julie, asked what employment guarantees the new constitution would offer young people.

Unemployment among young French adults is about 20 percent, twice the national average. Others worried that French social services would be eroded under a unified Europe, a fear the French President sought to alleviate.

The European charter is being defended by most of France's political parties. Even former Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin waded into the fray this week to argue in its favor. But that has not stopped public opposition from mounting.

If France votes no, Mr. Chirac said Thursday, the charter is unlikely to be renegotiated anytime soon. But Mr. Chirac said he would not step down from power if the treaty is rejected. He said his presidency and the referendum were not related.