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It's down to the wire in France

Vaiju Naravane

A "no" by France could set back the project of European construction by at least a decade.

ONLY A high rate of abstention can now save the "yes" vote in France, analysts and pollsters say as the country swings into its final days of campaigning before next Sunday's referendum to accept or reject the new European Constitution.

The three latest polls published in France all show the "no" camp ahead with 53 per cent of the vote. Only a last minute turnaround, which now appears unlikely, or a very significant rate of abstentions will save the "yes" vote. It is, however, not ruled out that the "yes" vote could just squeak through.

"Socialist leader Lionel Jospin, the former Prime Minister who was edged out of the last French presidential race by extreme right candidate Jean Marie le Pen, will be on TV tonight. This is the second time he is emerging from almost total political retirement to help the "yes" camp. And President Jacques Chirac is to address the nation on Thursday. How the French will react will depend greatly on the content of Mr. Chirac's speech. If he makes the French understand exactly what they will be losing by not voting for the constitution — the capacity to negotiate a better deal for the French and retaining a strong say in European affairs, and if he makes them realise that the Leftist and extreme Right "no" is not based on any real alternative project, but is mainly destructive and obstructionist, he might be able to convince people, if not to vote "yes" then at least to vote blank or abstain. But if he lectures them or talks down to them telling them this is the only way to go, he will be ruining his own chances," Christophe Barbier, a commentator with the newsmagazine l'Express told The Hindu .

For Roland Cayrol, Director of the prestigious polling and market research institute CSA, there is no doubt that the "no" vote is on top. "The "no" camp is truly galvanised. Leftist voters have found some sort of psychological relief through this campaign, where they have been able to shout out their unhappiness at the state of affairs in France. The question is, will they be able to carry out their threat of voting "no", when everyone else is telling them they will be responsible for denting France's clout and influence in Europe and around the world. Will they get cold feet at the last moment? Many things can happen when a person is alone in the voting booth and he finally weighs up the consequences of his action before slipping his ballot into the urn. Many Leftist voters will find themselves asking: Do I really want France to become weak? What alternative project has the Left really offered me? Do I want to join up with the extreme right? And he might vote blank or vote "yes". That is the only factor the "yes" camp can now count on," he told The Hindu .

Analysts feel a "no" vote would certainly damage President Chirac. But it would practically destroy France's other mainstream political groupings, the Socialists and the Greens. There has been a terrible fratricidal war within the socialist party. The party held an internal referendum on December 1, 2004 in which the rank and file supported the "yes" vote.

Despite the party's official line, rebels such as the former Prime Minister, Laurant Fabius, who is the party's number two, have openly campaigned against the document, effectually splitting the party down the middle. The Extreme Right — Jean Marie le Pen's National Front and Philippe de Villier's Movement for France — has taken its usual anti-Brussels, ultra-nationalist stand and does not risk losing voters.

The extreme Left too, in the shape of the Communist party, the Trotskyist Party and the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR) has attracted the disgruntled and the disenchanted, those afraid of losing their jobs to cheap labour from the poorer nations of eastern Europe.

As events in France speed to an almost certain photo finish next Sunday, diplomats and politicians in Brussels and other EU capitals are watching with bated breath. A French "no" could set back the project of European construction by at least a decade.

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