The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Grudge match in Europe’s battle
Chirac becomes focal point

Paris, May 29 (Reuters): The French flocked to the polls today to vote on the European Union’s first constitution, with final opinion polls pointing to a “No” that could kill a charter intended to ensure the smooth running of the enlarged bloc.

With three hours to go before the last polling stations close, 66.24 per cent of registered voters had already cast their vote, the interior ministry said.

That was nearly 10 percentage points up on the turnout at the same time of the day during the 1992 referendum on the Maastricht Treaty on closer EU integration, in which 69.69 per cent of voters finally cast their ballot.

Analysts are split on which camp could benefit from a high turnout. The last surveys put the “No” camp clearly ahead, with up to 56 per cent expected to vote down the treaty at the end of a heated campaign that divided France and became a debate on the government’s economic record as well as the future of Europe.

A beaming President Jacques Chirac, wearing a grey suit, shook hands with voters before casting his ballot with his wife, Bernadette, in the small central town of Sarran.

Yet Chirac’s gamble on a referendum rather than a safe ratification vote in parliament is in danger of failing. Opinion polls showed support for the charter tumble from about 60 per cent eight months ago to between 44 and 48 per cent last week. There is much at stake for the 72-year-old President. A rejection of the treaty would be a big setback for Chirac two years before presidential and parliamentary elections.

The constitution sets rules for the EU that are intended to simplify decision-making after the bloc’s enlargement from 15 to 25 member states in May 2004.

But many French voters regard the referendum as a chance to punish Chirac and his conservative government for unemployment at a five-year high of 10.2 per cent and other economic problems. “I voted ‘No’ in all conscience, having read the text, due to the lack of will to solve Europe’s number one problem today, which is unemployment,” said Armel Bompart, 52, a civil servant in Strasbourg, home to the European parliament.

France has some 42 million registered voters, with around one-in-five undecided when campaigning ended on Friday. Voters in overseas territories cast their ballots yesterday.

Chirac has said he will not quit but is seen reacting to a “No” vote by dismissing unpopular Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin. Interior minister Dominique de Villepin, a trusted ally, leads the race to replace him.

In the Netherlands, where voters are widely expected to reject the constitution in a referendum on Wednesday, leaders appealed to the Dutch not to heed a possible French “No” vote.

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