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Last Updated: Monday, 23 May, 2005, 07:09 GMT 08:09 UK
EU treaty splits French students
By Henri Astier
BBC News, Nantes, France

French students
Some students view the treaty as a framework for change
As French students prepare for their final exams, they are hotly debating the marks they will be giving to the proposed European constitution in this month's referendum.

Under a tree on the campus of Nantes University, in western France, members of the country's main student union, Unef, are engaged in deep discussion.

All believe in European integration and are clamouring for more exchange programmes giving young people from across the EU opportunities to study abroad.

Nicolas Quinqueneau, studying to become a sports teacher, notes that the constitution has little or nothing to say on this matter.

"There are no European-wide institutions dealing with university education," he complains, saying this is a major reason why he will vote No.

Framework

Many of his fellow students agree that current EU exchange programmes - such as Erasmus which involves about 1% of French students - are inadequate.

But while others in the discussion expect the proposed treaty to remedy this, Pierre Chiron, a law student and a Yes supporter, points out that such specific demands are not the point of a constitution.

Nicolas Quinqueneau
There are no European-wide institutions dealing with university education
Nicolas Quinqueneau,
Student
"It is about a framework for making decisions," he points out. "It must be short. After it is approved, then we can deal with particular issues. Let's not block the very thing that will allow us to change things."

Marlene Colineau, another law student, is not convinced.

"I grant you that the constitution must be short. But why is it so long on many things? It is specific on many issues. Why not education?"

Other critics in the group emphasise the general drift of the constitution.

Mathias Tessier, a science student, contends that the document follows an "Anglo-Saxon", free-market economic line that is hostile to France's social system - the main complaint of the constitution's hard-left opponents.

"Our public services will be dismantled," he says.

Mr Chiron agrees that the constitution is not perfect, but argues that France has no right to impose its own highly state-orientated conception of public services on the rest of Europe.

Undecided

The Unef members have strong ideas about the referendum, but this is not the case for less politically active students in Nantes.

Voters' views on EU treaty

As you walk around the campus - a curious mix of US-style, sprawling leafiness, and drab, 1960s, graffiti-covered buildings - it is hard to find anyone who is familiar with the constitution.

"I haven't read it," says language student Anne Maillot, who says she will make her decision at the last minute.

She is not the only one. Polls have suggested that the balance of Yes and No supporters among the young is about the same as in the population at large - roughly 50-50 - but that the share of undecided people is significantly higher.

This makes the young a crucial constituency, and explains why President Jacques Chirac kicked off his Yes campaign with a televised debate with an audience of under-30s.

Mr Chirac urged them to look closely at what the treaty says, and not let extraneous issues influence their choice.

But it is not clear how many students have followed his advice.

Tired

On the Nantes campus, many espouse or reject the constitution depending on their general view of Europe, rather than the minutiae of the text.

Carole Thibaud, studying art history, says: "I lean towards Yes - not because I understand the treaty but because I am in favour of building a united Europe."

Others will favour No because of expansion fatigue.

"Eastern bloc countries are set to win and France will lose out in an expanded Europe. I feel more French than European," says Morgane Rouinsard, a language student.

Meanwhile, some foreign students on campus are watching closely how their French hosts will vote. One such observer is Deniz Sahin from Turkey.

"If the Yes wins it will make it easier for Turkey to join the EU," she says - although she does not believe this will happen in the foreseeable future.


More stories by Henri Astier on French opinion ahead of the referendum:




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