French Voters Reject EU Constitution

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 29, 2005; 5:51 PM

PARIS, May 29 -- Unhappy French voters on Sunday derailed plans to further political and economic integration in Europe, decisively rejecting the proposed European constitution and thumbing their noses at the country's governing elite, which had pleaded for approval of the measure.

The turnout was heavy and the margin of defeat was wide, with about 57 percent rejecting the constitution and about 43 percent voting for it. Opposition leaders harnessed widespread disenchantment over a variety of issues, including the unpopularity of President Jacques Chirac, the weak French economy and fears that the country would lose its clout to a strengthened European central government.

The French defeat throws into confusion -- for now -- the campaign to fashion a constitution for Europe, since each of the 25 nations that belongs to the European Union must approve the charter before it can take effect.

"There is no longer a constitution," said Philippe de Villiers, leader of Movement For France, a nationalist party that warned France would lose its identity if the European Union continued to expand its borders to include nations such as Turkey. "We need to reconstruct Europe. This vote says there is a real difference in this country between the institutions and what the people really want."

In a brief televised address shortly after the polls closed, Chirac said he accepted the will of the voters, even though he had lobbied heavily for approval of the constitution. "I'll defend in Brussels the message from the French people," he said.

He did not comment on his own political future, or announce any changes to his government, which has sagged badly in opinion polls. Critics amplified their calls for him to resign before his term ends in 2007.

Leaders of the European Union held out hope that they could salvage the constitutional campaign. They noted that nine countries had already given their assent and insisted that other members be allowed their say. If France remains the lone holdout, backers of the constitution suggested that another referendum could be held and French voters could be cajoled into approving the document.

But the constitution could run into even more trouble as soon as Wednesday, when voters in the Netherlands are scheduled to hold a non-binding referendum. Opinion polls show that a majority of Dutch voters are inclined to vote no. If the Dutch join the French in opposition, analysts said the constitution might have to be scrapped or renegotiated.