by Julio Godoy
(IPS) PARIS -- The clear French vote against the European constitution has precipitated a grave political crisis for France and for the European Union, with no easy solution in sight.
"This is a sound repudiation of President Jacques Chirac and his right-wing government, but also of the major political parties and the mainstream press, which during the campaign unanimously urged French citizens to approve the constitution," HelŹne Miard Delacroix, professor of political science at the École Normal Superieur de Lyon university told IPS.
The French rejection of the constitution also puts the future of European Union institutions on hold, Delacroix said. "While the procedure of the constitution's ratification or rejection by other EU country members must continue until the fall of 2006, European authorities cannot ignore the French vote."
This is a view shared widely in France. "I am sure that all members of the EU will work together to find a way out of this impasse," Henri Weber, Socialist member of the European parliament told IPS.
But opposition to the constitution is expected to rise across Europe. The Netherlands, where a referendum is due this Wednesday, also looks set to reject the constitution. A 'no' is also expected in Denmark later this year.
More than 55 percent of French voters rejected the constitution in the referendum Sunday. More than 70 percent people came to vote -- record participation in a European election.
Opinion polls suggest that most French citizens opposed the constitution because they see it as an instrument of economic neo- liberalization and deregulation. Many who voted against it said the European Union has failed to bring employment and economic growth.
"Since the introduction of the euro (in January 2002), everything has become more expensive," independent journalist Olivier Schneid told IPS. "You do not need to be an economic expert to realize that today you buy fewer goods with 20 euros than with the equivalent in francs four years ago."
Other grounds for voting against the constitution are the high unemployment - 10 percent in France - and the loss of manufacturing for which many blame the EU expansion into lower-wage Eastern and Southern Europe.
The objective stated in article 1.3 of the draft constitution, and repeated about 40 times in the 448 articles of the text that the EU must be "an internal market where competition is free and undistorted" is seen by many as a key explanation for the popular repudiation.
A powerfully negative symbol of this "free and undistorted" market competition came by way of a proposal on services. This directive came to be known as the Bolkestein directive after internal market commissioner Frits Bolkestein who submitted the proposal to the European Commission, the European Union (EU) executive, in January this year.
Under this directive a company could set up offices in an EU country with the lowest labor standards, and these would then be applicable to staff in every country where the company operates.
French citizens saw this project as a lowering of social standards. After major demonstrations against the directive, the French government was forced to oppose the project.
Although the 'no' vote triumphed in practically all French areas, it was bigger in regions with a strong industrial and working class background, such as Nord-Pas de Calais in the north-west of the country.
In this region which has an unemployment rate of over 15 percent, almost 70 percent of the voters rejected the constitution. In some cities in the region, the 'no' vote reached 85 percent.
The French vote will change the outcome of the ratification of the constitution. According to plans the treaty should enter into force November next year. In the event that one or several EU member countries reject the treaty, the European Council formed by heads of state and government and the president of the EU commission must propose an alternative procedure - the so-called 'plan B' that European officials and experts have been talking about.
Under this plan, the European heads of state and government could ratify certain aspects of the constitution which do not need popular approval in order to improve efficiency within the EU, according to a French government official.
"The European Council could unanimously name an EU president for the mandate the constitution foresees for two-and-a-half years," the official said. This president would substitute the present rotating six-month EU presidency.
The European Council could similarly designate a common foreign minister, and a foreign office to plan and coordinate a European foreign policy.
But other modifications of European structures foreseen in the constitution - such as the revision of the voting weight of individual EU members - will be impossible to be put in practice.
French President Jacques Chirac admitted after the vote that the rejection of the constitution represented a protest against his right-wing government. He is now expected to reshuffle the cabinet.
But the cocktail of discontent is encouraging politicians from all camps to call for radical political change. Francois Bayrou, leader of the liberal party the French Democratic Union, urged Chirac to call parliamentary elections. "The president's pledge to reshuffle his cabinet will not suffice," Bayrou said.
The vote will also have consequences within the opposition Socialist Party. After an internal referendum which resulted in a large vote in favor of the constitution, the Socialist leadership campaigned accordingly.
But several Socialist leaders, including former prime minister Laurent Fabius, adopted a dissident position, calling on citizens to reject the constitution. The party may now review its leadership following the results of the referendum.
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