Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Chirac plea for Yes vote on EU treaty

Telegraph - Jacques Chirac broke with tradition yesterday while visiting Japan to urge France to vote Yes in its May 29 referendum on the European constitution.

The French president has been criticised by supporters of the constitution for taking too long to join the debate amid rising panic within mainstream parties that the No vote is gaining an unstoppable momentum. Mr Chirac's uncharacteristic outburst was seen as an attempt to pre-empt criticism that he had once again ducked the issue by escaping to his favourite retreat: this is believed to be his 45th visit to Japan.

His comments came at the end of a three-day trip, officially to promote technological ties but primarily to attend a tournament in Osaka of his favourite sport, sumo wrestling.

Momentarily forgetting the plummeting popularity of his conservative government and ongoing social unrest back home, Mr Chirac was treated to a standing ovation on Saturday by fellow sumo fans.

His trip coincided with the release of the third opinion poll in 10 days showing a majority against approving the constitution, with the No vote at 55 per cent. A month ago 60 per cent were in favour.

Mr Chirac has staked his prestige on a Yes to the constitution, which is aimed at streamlining decision-making in the expanded 25-member European Union.

Several explanations have emerged for the rise of the No camp, including the unpopularity of Mr Chirac's government, fears over Turkish entry into the EU and a proposal to free up the services sector.

The constitution must be ratified by all 25 EU countries. A No vote in France would effectively kill the constitution.

"It is in the interest of France and Europe but also of peace, development and the preservation of our social model to say yes to the constitutional treaty," Mr Chirac told an economic forum in Tokyo.

He sought to dissuade the French electorate from voting No as a protest against his government's social and economic policies. "My concern is that this response [in the referendum] be on no concerns other than European ones," he said.

The No campaigners have capitalised on fears that the constitution would dilute France's influence in Europe and lead to unbridled "Anglo-Saxon" liberalism. On the contrary, said Mr Chirac, the constitution was the best way of maintaining France's "voice" in negotiations.

Stung by the rise of the No vote, Mr Chirac ordered Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the prime minister, last week to launch an "explanatory campaign" mobilising the government.

A No vote could prove fatal to Mr Chirac's presidency, certainly to any notion of him running for a third term in 2007.