Hugh Schofield, Agence France-Presse, Mar. 19
PARIS — The political elites of France and the rest of Europe were shocked yesterday by an opinion poll that for the first time suggested a majority of French voters will reject the European Union Constitution in a referendum in 10 weeks.
After weeks in which the “no” camp had made unspectacular but steady progress among voters, the survey in Le Parisien newspaper showed a sudden leap to 51 percent — largely explained by a big increase in opposition on the left to the constitution.
According to the survey, support for the “no” vote grew from 31 percent six months ago to 37 percent in mid-February before spurting ahead just as the country went through a period of mass anti-government strikes and demonstrations.
The figures were bad news for President Jacques Chirac, who has put his political weight behind the EU Constitution, and showed the difficulties of mobilizing support for a document that few people understand.
The poll also came as a blow to the opposition Socialist Party, which is officially campaigning for the constitution but split within its ranks.
The CSA poll showed that a large majority of Socialist supporters, 59 percent, oppose the document.
A rejection of the constitution in the vote on May 29 would have enormous implications, both in France and across the European Union.
The document, which is meant to streamline decision making in the expanding bloc, must be ratified in all 25 member states. And observers don’t see how it could survive in its existing form if turned down in one of the European Union’s largest and most important countries.
The French former president of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, warned yesterday that a “no” vote would cause a “political cataclysm” in France.
“And in Europe it will open up a very serious crisis which will slow down European construction at the expense of French interests,” he said.
Several factors were cited for the surging success of the “no” camp in France, including the unpopularity of Mr. Chirac’s center-right government, qualms over Turkish entry into the European Union and the focus on a proposal to reform European service industries.
Described by former Socialist Prime Minister Laurent Fabius as a “foretaste of the European Constitution,” the service industry directive would make it possible for service providers such as architects or accountants to operate across all 25 members.
But opponents say it would lead to “social dumping” as businesses and jobs relocate to the low-cost economies of Eastern Europe.
Mr. Chirac also has condemned the directive, but as an issue it has played strongly into the hands of his opponents.
In Brussels, the European Commission said it was “concerned” by the rise in support for a “no” vote.
Supporters of the constitution argued that the “yes” campaign has yet to get under way, and that once the advantages are properly explained, the public will understand the importance of voting “yes.”
Mr. Chirac has reason to fear that voters will use the EU referendum to punish his government as growing unemployment, falling incomes and record profits for top companies have combined to create a mood of popular discontent.
Memories are strong of the 1992 referendum on the Maastricht Treaty, which created the European Union. The “yes” vote in France barely won after support for the treaty fell sharply in the campaign.