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Last Updated: Thursday, 28 October, 2004, 12:12 GMT 13:12 UK
France cools towards EU project

By Caroline Wyatt
BBC Paris correspondent

In November 1959, the French leader General Charles de Gaulle proclaimed proudly from Strasbourg: "Yes, it is Europe - a Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals, all of Europe - that will decide the destiny of the world!"

President Jacques Chirac
Chirac has promised a separate referendum on Turkey's bid
France has always been sure of its European destiny, and indeed Europe's wider vocation as a world leader and nascent superpower - at least until recently.

French politicians have long seen the European Union as an extension of French power, a deeply political project steered mainly from Paris, with Germany as the junior partner.

But with the expansion of Europe to 25 members, and Turkish membership under discussion, all that has changed.

It has produced deep unease in Paris as to the future direction of Europe, and fed into the heated French debate over the European Constitution.

The document was drafted by the conservative former French president Giscard d'Estaing.

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Perhaps a few years ago, the constitution would have raised few eyebrows.

Now it is the subject of ferocious argument, splitting both the left and the right in France, and leaving 58% of French voters unsure as to which way they will vote when the issue is put to a referendum.

'Wrong direction'

It is not that France is against the constitution per se, or even that it fears giving Brussels too much power.

The debate is much more about which direction Europe is taking and how much influence Paris will continue to have over that.

The deputy leader of the French Socialists, Laurent Fabius - also a former French prime minister - has promised to reject the constitution, saying that it is not based on the "social" model the Socialists would like for Europe: that it does not guarantee enough protection or rights to Europe's workers.

Voting
Some EU member states will not be holding a referendum
Some accuse him of playing domestic politics and using this issue as a way to enhance his own profile against the party leader, Francois Hollande, ahead of the next French general elections in 2007.

But others believe that his position taps into wider fears in this founding European nation.

There are fears that the French vision of a politically-integrated, socially-minded Europe is being threatened by a looser, Anglo-Saxon-led liberal economic model, an EU which risks turning into little more than a free-trade area.

Chance of a 'Non'

French diplomats and politicians fear that the addition of 10 new member states - many of whom look first to Washington or even London rather than to Paris - has diluted not only French influence but even the use of French as an EU language.

It is against that background that President Jacques Chirac has said that the constitution is so important that France must have a referendum on the matter, probably some time next year, to give the people their say.

KEY DEVELOPMENTS
February 2002: Convention starts work
June 2003: Draft submitted to EU Thessaloniki summit
December 2003: Brussels summit fails to agree final text
May 2004: EU enlarges to 25
June 2004: Text agreed

The danger for him, though, is that the French people could say "non" and that the issue of the European Constitution will get muddled with the even more divisive question of Turkish EU membership.

That is why Mr Chirac has now also promised another, separate referendum on Turkish entry to the EU - though not for at least a decade.

The debate over Turkey has also fed into French fears of what direction the EU is taking. Turkey would be the first Moslem country to join, one of the poorest and yet by 2015 probably the largest nation in terms of population.

At least two-thirds of the French currently oppose Turkish membership and it will take a lot of campaigning to change their minds.

So, as Europe prepares to sign up to the constitution, there is a small but significant danger that France may still reject it in a referendum.

Mr Chirac and most of his party are hoping to steer voters towards a "yes". But looking back at the last French referendum on joining the euro, it was a close-run thing.

Many ordinary French people also complain that they know too little about the constitution, and that there has been too little discussion of what it will mean in practice. Both the Yes and the No campaigners will spend the next year addressing that, with their own interpretations of the constitution's merits and drawbacks.


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