The majority of French people would oppose Turkey’s accession to the EU if asked to vote on the issue today, according to a poll that again underlines the extent of popular hostility to the project across Europe.
The poll, by the IPSOS research group for Le Figaro newspaper, showed that 36% of French people were in favour but 56% were against the mainly Muslim country joining the 25-country union in the immediate future. The most cited objection was the fear of mass immigration.
The European commission is expected to recommend in a long-awaited report next week that the EU opens accession talks with Turkey, although no decision can be made before EU leaders meet in December. Entry talks could then last for years, even decades.
But public opinion in many European countries appears firmly set against the move, leading to increasing speculation that EU politicians have got ahead of their voters. Turkey would be the EU’s most populous country, its poorest and the only one with a majority Muslim population.
The French poll found that, of those who opposed entry now, 40% were most concerned by the impact of Turkish immigrants on the EU job market. Some 26% said their main objection was that Turkey is mainly in Asia, while 25% cited the fact that most Turks are Muslims.
But in a sign that popular opinion may change, 63% said they could imagine Turkey in the EU if it made “the necessary political and economic changes”. Nearly 30% said Turkey should never be part of the EU for cultural and historic reasons.
France’s political class is also deeply divided. President Jacques Chirac has backed Ankara’s bid, but most of his ruling UMP party disagrees.
The finance minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, and the foreign minister, Michel Barnier, said this week that the issue had to be settled by a referendum.
“In my personal opinion . . . a decision as important as Turkey’s accession into Europe could be taken only after a referendum is held in France, in due course, to determine the opinion of French people,” Mr Barnier said.
The prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, was more outspoken in a newspaper interview last week, demanding, controversially: “Do we want the river of Islam to enter the riverbed of secularism?”
Although the French, already upset by their diminished influence in a union of 25 members, would favour a referendum on Turkey’s accession, many would be tempted to vote against such a move, fearful that a nation of 71 million people would fundamentally change the nature of the EU and further reduce France’s influence.
“A referendum would be very risky,” said Eddy Fougier, an analyst at the French Institute for International Relations. “It is clear that there are people on the French right who will never accept Turkey’s entry.”
Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the architect of the new European constitution, summed up the position of many French conservatives when he said last year that Turkish membership would signal “the end of the EU”. Turkey was “not a European country”. It had “a different culture, a different approach and a different way of life”, he said.
Calls for a referendum by those such as Mr Sarkozy and the leading socialist and former prime minister Laurent Fabius appear largely to be an attempt to cash in on popular anti-Turkish feeling ahead of their expected 2007 presidential election campaigns.