May 29, 2006

One year on, France still split over EU charter vote

By James Mackenzie

PARIS (Reuters) - France remains divided over the proposed
European constitution, a year after voters rejected the charter
in a referendum that threw the European Union into disarray,
according to a survey released on Monday.

French voters shocked EU leaders last year by rejecting the
charter which many feared enshrined an economically liberal,
market-friendly agenda that risked undermining Europe's
traditionally strong social concerns.

The rejection also dismayed the mainstream parties and
supporters of the constitution, who decried many of the
charter's critics as populist or naive and underscored a deep
sense of uncertainty about the future direction of Europe.

The survey of 3,935 individuals between February and April
by polling group TNS Sofres, suggested voters were still
divided over the issue.

It found 46 percent satisfied with the vote against 47
percent dissatisfied, with younger people and public sector
workers generally pleased by the rejection and older voters,
higher earners and those in the private sector displeased.

Last May's "No" vote, which was also widely seen as a vote
against President Jacques Chirac, kicked off a miserable year
for the government marked by street protests and a lingering
smear scandal that has badly damaged its credibility.

Since then, senior French politicians have been cautious
about addressing the question beyond calling for more
reflection and dialogue with citizens but the issue is likely
to force itself into next year's presidential election.

"I think the European question will be the backdrop to the
presidential campaign because it's about knowing what the
future of Europe is," Philippe de Villiers, head of the
nationalist Mouvement pour la France party which opposed the
charter, told the daily Le Monde.


The first anniversary of the vote comes as France goes
through a bout of soul searching over a political system
tarnished by scandal and battered by public rejection of key
government proposals, including the constitution.

The TNS Sofres survey found that 64 percent of those
questioned thought France had been weakened in Europe by the
defeat of the referendum, while only 21 percent thought the
victory of the "No" camp had strengthened France.

"Even most of those who rejected the treaty say the 'No'
victory has weakened France in Europe," the pollsters said.

EU foreign ministers meeting in Vienna at the weekend
acknowledged that there was little immediate prospect of
reviving the charter, which must be ratified by all EU states
to come into force.

The survey found many people considered the EU too distant
from their own lives but there was some hope for pro-Europeans
in its findings.

Apart from the constitution, the great majority favored
building European structures, with 44 percent calling
themselves "enthusiastic" and 38 percent saying they were
"favorable" against only 8 percent "skeptical" and 7 percent

"Everything that's going on in public opinion is suggests
the debate is not between 'pro' and the 'anti' Europeans but is
more about the nature and the content of the European project,"
TNS Sofres said.