PARIS—French voters dealt a crushing blow Sunday night to both French President Jacques Chirac and the proposed European Constitution he so strongly supports, defeating the document by a margin of 55 percent to 45 percent.
The loss meant that the European Constitution, which was designed to ease the running of the expanded 25-nation European Union, cannot go into effect. EU rules required unanimous support from all 25 countries.
The constitution envisioned more political unity, including a movement toward Europe speaking with one voice on foreign policy.
Dominque Moisi, deputy director of the French Institute of International Relations, said that as Chirac put more and more political capital into a Yes vote, and the opposition grew, it became increasingly clear that regardless of the result, he would not appear to be a winner in this election.
"France has spoken as a democracy, and it has rejected the constitution," Chirac said in an address to the nation. "This is a sovereign right. Europe will continue under the current treaties."
Under the existing EU laws, the EU's governing bodies in Brussels, Belgium, will continue to make Europe-wide rules on such matters as product safety and the environment.
There had been talk in France that if the constitution lost by a close vote, there might have been another vote. But the large margin of the loss made that unlikely. About 70 percent of French voters voted.
Three months ago, French voters appeared to favor the constitution by three to one.
Raquel Garrido, spokesperson for the No campaign, said that what was now needed was a complete re-negotiation of the constitution.
"This statement will be heard and greeted by all of Europe," she said. "It will provide hope, and let politicians know that the people are not willing to stand for a Europe that puts the interests of big business ahead of the workers and the environment."
The vote here was stunning, for several reasons. The document was drafted by former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, who insisted on several provisions considered very pro-France. What's more, France has been at the heart of European integration efforts since a French foreign minister suggested the union in 1950.
Beyond that, French media were almost wholly behind the constitution, as was not only Chirac's ruling party but also his strongest opponents, the Socialist Party.
The opposition was a mix of those from the far-left and far right, bolstered by a defection of many people from their parties' official lines.
Those voting against the constitution cited a variety of reasons. Polls showed that a key issue driving a No vote was the fear that the EU would force France to do away with social protections such as generous sick leave and severance packages.
Ouafae Zennouhi, 37, a housewife, said she voted no because she feared people from other European countries to the east would take jobs away from the French.
"I don't think that's a good future for my children," Zennouhi said.
Many in France fear that lower-paid workers would invade and make it even harder for the French, who face 10 percent unemployment, to find jobs.
Workers from the lower-wage and lower-tax countries of Eastern Europe live under different rules and have fewer social protections.
Her husband, Lhoucile, a public school teacher, 46, said he took the time to read the constitution and said it didn't address social issues such as improved job security, health care and wages for workers throughout the European Union.
Voters in the Netherlands vote on the European Constitution on Wednesday. They also are expected to reject it.
Henri Emmanuelli, a member of the French parliament and leader in the No effort, said the results showed that French voters were not willing to settle for an inferior Europe.
"Our debate here will set the course of the future, not just for France, but for all of Europe," he said. "This is the start of a new social Europe."
(Kripalani is a special correspondent in Paris. Ken Dilanian of the Philadelphia Inquirer also contributed to this report.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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