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Europe's march toward unity may come to a halt after French vote

PARIS—The French think the European Union's proposed constitution is too British. The communists think it's too capitalist. And some capitalists think all it does for business is create red tape.

In fact, when the constitution is discussed these days, there are only a couple of points of agreement:

_ On Sunday, the French will vote on it.

_ And it's in trouble.

"You know, it's really the first time the elites have ever asked for our opinion about the future of Europe," said Noel Patrick, a 45-year-old Parisian. "We've been waiting for our chance to tell them they've got it all wrong."

Polls show Sunday's vote will be close, and that the constitution is likely to be defeated. Because of the way the European Union is structured, the constitution is dead if any one of the 25 member nations doesn't approve it.

That wouldn't mean the European Union goes away; it would continue to be governed by existing treaties. But it would mean that progress toward a more unified Europe would come to a halt, at least for now. And it might mean trouble for future plans to strengthen the role of the European government, based in Brussels, Belgium.

"If Malta had rejected it, well, Malta would be out," explained Janis Emmanouilidis, a German Foreign Ministry adviser. "But if France rejects it, there is no Plan B. Europe without France is not a viable option. A `no' vote puts Europe in crisis, though how deeply we don't know."

In broader terms, it also could signal trouble for the U.S.-supported push for globalization and free trade, and may make Europe a more fractious entity to deal with at a time that the United States is hoping the continent will take a more unified approach on security concerns and the war on terrorism.

The reasons for the constitution's troubles here boil down to a single sentiment: The constitution does little to protect jobs and government benefits in Western Europe in the face of competition from newer member states in Eastern Europe.

"This treaty doesn't elevate the rest of Europe, and it doesn't protect France. What good is it?" Anna Olivier, 65, said while waiting for the start of a "For me, it is No" rally in a working-class neighborhood of Paris.

French opponents point to the recent relocation of a Renault plant to Romania as an example of the future unless a better constitution is written. In a continent where unemployment hovers around 10 percent in countries such as Germany and Italy, they aren't alone in their concern.

But France is the first country in which approval of the constitution rests with voters, not parliament. Seven other countries have agreed to let voters decide, while 16, including Germany, left approval to legislators. After the French, citizens of the Netherlands will vote next Wednesday, and polls show the constitution to be in trouble there, as well.

Votes by the people will follow in Luxembourg, Poland, Denmark, Portugal, Ireland and Great Britain. Czech Republic voters also may go to the polls, though the decision isn't yet official.

Sebastian Kurpas, a research fellow with the Belgian-based Centre for European Policy Studies, said that like many in Brussels, he'd been excited about the development of a public debate: People in cafes arguing about the future of Europe for the first time.

"I was thrilled to see the debate begin," he said. "But, I must add, I have a problem with the direction it's taken."

Alain Taccella, who manages youth sports fields for the city of Paris, is an example of that. "To a worker, the European Union means nothing more than unemployment," he said. "It works for the rich, not the workers. It has not been a positive force, not at all."

The French have always been at the center of efforts to create a European Union, which began in the years after World War II as an attempt to prevent more European wars by making Europeans more dependent on one another. The French foreign minister came up with the precursor to today's EU in 1950, when six nations signed a trade pact covering coal and steel.

By the 1980s, there were 16 members, and they were issuing European passports and had a unified flag. Last year, nine Eastern European nations joined.

Daniel Vaillant, a former French interior minister and a supporter of the constitution, said a French rejection would be a humiliating blow to European unity.

"We insisted on it. And now we're going to defeat it?" he said. "The rest of Europe thinks we're crazy."

"What is truly sad, though, is that for so long, the people of Europe were ignored by the decision makers," Vaillant said. "The last treaties have not been good ones. Now, finally, we have a good treaty, one that will benefit the people, and they don't trust it."

The document—the new part is 64 pages long, but it's beefed up with an already existing human rights section and some old agreements—is intended to create a union that works more smoothly.

It includes phrases such as "unified in diversity" and "to forge a common destiny" and the preamble has five pages of signatures. It creates a standing president, rather than one who rotates among countries annually, and a joint foreign minister to negotiate in areas of common interest.

The debate has shown that national divisions are still strong in Europe. Kurpas describes it this way: The French say the constitution is too Anglo-Saxon, and the British say it's a Franco-Germanic document.

The campaign in France has been energetic. Many French voters have even read the document; it was a best seller in bookstores before supporters, fearing that it would fail, began handing out copies for free.

Three months ago, polls indicated that two-thirds of French voters would approve the constitution. But since then, the polls have shown a steady decline in support. The 10 most recent—by polling groups, research groups and news media—have shown opponents widening their lead. The latest tally predicts a 54 to 46 percent rejection.

The supporters include President Jacques Chirac, who appeared on national television Thursday night to plead with voters to approve the document: "It is a question of the future of France, and the future of Europe. ... On Sunday, each of you will hold our destiny in your hands."

He's backed by a range of right, centrist and left political parties. The socialists, for instance, are split.

The no vote effort comes from communists, socialists, environmentalists and a collection of leftist political parties, who say the document doesn't do enough to require social improvements. There's also opposition from the far right, which opposes European integration in general.

Jean Piot, 69, is among those who've read the constitution. He plans to vote no.

It doesn't require members to provide the same level of public services as France, the same health care, education and transportation, he complained.

Those in favor say that's a strength: Countries remain independent, but have a document that assists them in their common interests.

Piot isn't so sure.

"If countries that don't provide any services—where they have lower tax rates and lower worker salaries—aren't made to improve the lives of their citizens, the jobs will leave France, move east, where it's cheaper for business," he said.

"We call this lowering the bar," he added. "No one wins. If making sure that doesn't happen isn't the purpose of a constitution, it should be."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050526 EUVOTE France, 20050524 EU polls

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