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France to vote on E.U. Constitution

By Amelia Gentleman and Ian Black© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

PARIS/BRUSSELS, JULY 15. The French President, Jacques Chirac, bowed to pressure from across the political spectrum by announcing yesterday that France would hold a referendum on whether to adopt the European Constitution, signalling the start of a fraught campaign to ensure the Government secures a yes vote.

Ending months of uncertainty, Mr. Chirac said a vote would take place in the second half of next year.

``The French people are concerned directly, and will therefore be consulted directly and so there will be a referendum,'' he said during his annual Bastille day interview.

Earlier Mr. Chirac had watched as British troops, for the first time, joined the July 14 parade down the Champs Elysees in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the entente cordiale between the U.K. and France.

The delay in announcing the referendum reflects the political risks involved in putting the question to the country and Mr. Chirac's nervousness over whether he could guarantee popular support for the treaty.

France's decision raises the stakes further for the constitution which has to be approved by all 25 member countries before it can take effect. Although opinion polls show a majority of French people favouring the constitution, any mid-term vote risks becoming an opportunity for the voters to express their discontent with Mr. Chirac.

France has a problematic history with referendums. Francois Mitterrand, then president, had difficulties in 1992 when he called for a national vote on the Maastricht treaty on European economic and monetary union; only a narrow majority backed the treaty.

Last year the Government lost a referendum on greater autonomy for Corsica amid speculation that some voters used the opportunity to protest against Mr. Chirac.

The risk for the Government is intensified by hostility towards the E.U. Although France was a driving force behind the EEC in 1957, this year's enlargement has heightened concern over its diminishing role.

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