Thursday, May 26, 2005

Gee, that's too bad. (snicker)

French in disarray as they admit EU treaty vote is lost

By Charles Bremner in Paris and Philip Webster, Political Editor

THE leader of France’s ruling party has privately admitted that Sunday’s referendum on the European constitution will result in a “no” vote, throwing Europe into turmoil.

“The thing is lost,” Nicolas Sarkozy told French ministers during an ill-tempered meeting. “It will be a little ‘no’ or a big ‘no’,” he was quoted as telling Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the Prime Minister, whom he accused of leading a feeble campaign.

Although Europe would be thrown into disarray, the Government would be greatly relieved if M Sarkozy were right.

Ministers have privately told The Times that Britain is prepared to ditch its commitment to a referendum if France, or the Netherlands next Wednesday, vote against the constitution. They believe that if the French say “no”, President Chirac will have to declare the constitution dead or promise a renegotiation.

Because French voters consider that the treaty has already given too many concessions to Britain, ministers see no likelihood of the Government being able to put a renegotiated treaty to the country.

Tony Blair would instead have to use Britain’s imminent EU presidency to try to save those parts of the constitution that can be enforced without a treaty. That could mean that mechanical changes, such as ending the six-month rotating presidency of the EU, could go through.

The mood of pessimism that descended on the French Government after ten successive polls showing the “no” camp leading was echoed by Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the former French President, who drafted the constitution. He blamed the failures of the “yes” campaign on the half-heartedness of France’s leaders.

“Our current leaders are of course believers in the idea of Europe but in their heart of hearts they are not men and women who are inspired by a European feeling,” he told a French newspaper.

President Chirac will go on television tonight to deliver a last-ditch appeal to his country to resist the temptation to vote “no” and trigger a crisis for the whole European Union.

But the President, who called the referendum in July last year but has done little campaigning, was reported to be pessimistic and telling visitors to the Elysée Palace that he expected a “no”.

M Sarkozy’s outburst came after M Raffarin, who is expected to lose his job in the event of a defeat, told ministers and the leadership of M Chirac’s UMP party that they should avoid defeatism but be prepared to limit the damage from the crisis from a “no”, party sources said.

After Philippe Douste-Blazy, the Health Minister, insisted that “we should trust the head of state”, M Sarkozy retorted: “Everything has to change — our way of doing politics . . . the labour law.” He said that the UMP would demand changes after the referendum and that “the Government had better follow the party”, the sources said.

M Sarkozy wants to be President and is locked in a bitter rivalry with M Chirac. The leaking of the row by M Sarkozy’s camp was a sign of the rising bad blood between the party leader and M Chirac’s team.

Mr Blair, pressed in the Commons to make plain that Britain would not go ahead if there were a rejection of the treaty in France’s vote on Sunday or the Dutch poll next Wednesday, effectively did so.

He said yesterday only that there would be a referendum before any constitutional treaty was ratified in Britain. He carefully avoided saying that there would be a referendum come what may.

He said: “If any country did vote ‘no’ there would have to be a discussion at the European Council on it to see the way forward and there is really nothing else to say at this point.”