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Last Updated: Monday, 23 May, 2005, 16:53 GMT 17:53 UK
EU treaty gets French business vote
By Henri Astier
BBC News, Nantes, France

Dynamips company
French businesses do not wish to declare their support too loudly
Entrepreneurs in some European countries, notably Britain, often regard Brussels as a den of bureaucratic busybodies - but in France, most bosses view the EU as an escape route from a hostile environment.

In a country where the state intervenes heavily in the economy, French business leaders tend to support the European constitution being put to a referendum on Sunday.

"We have so many mental blocks in France," says Pierre Voillet, head and founder of Dynamips, a computer retail and services firm in the western city of Nantes.

"Europe is our hope."

Modernising France

Mr Voillet fears a French rejection of the constitution could have a significant impact: "If we lose the momentum it will be hard to get it back."

Bruno Grimaud
I have a feeling that everyone who works in this sector is in favour of the constitution
Bruno Grimaud, chief executive of Oceanet Technology
Indeed, he feels so strongly about this that he has set up a website explaining what he sees as the main merits of the constitution - including "the social dimension inherent in economic growth."

Like many of his business contemporaries, he believes European integration is crucial to help modernise France.

He points out that companies currently face huge obstacles, citing as an example officials who, he says, keep coming up with fresh objections to his plans to built an internet centre with infrastructure that would benefit local firms.

"We are confronted with people who almost regard enterprise with suspicion," he adds.

Support for the European project appears to come naturally to the young, cosmopolitan types who run technology firms.

Bruno Grimaud, chief executive of Oceanet Technology - a sister firm to Dynamips - says: "I have a feeling that everyone who works in this sector is in favour of the constitution.

"I haven't yet met anyone who said they were going to vote 'No'. I will certainly vote 'Yes'. It's the obvious choice."

Marylene Vialaret
Marylene Vialaret's farming family have grave concerns

A straw poll among the 20- and 30-somethings hunched over their computers at Oceanet seemed to confirm this, although Pierre Marcueyz, an engineer, says he will run a sceptical eye over the text before making up his mind.

Marylene Vialaret, the chief financial officer, admits that the constitution has created tensions within her family.

"Many of my relatives are farmers, and they are dead against it," she says.

"They're worried that they will lose their subsidies."

Outsourcing

But business support for the constitutional treaty appears strong not just among the techies of north-western Nantes.

In an older industrial area of the city, the head of the French branch of an international manufacturing group - who prefers to remain anonymous - also wants a stronger Europe, and fears the consequences of a "No" vote.

We should open up our markets without killing the rich countries of Europe
Martine Mutterer, Siat & Lang, Alsace
"Europe is more business-friendly than France," he says.

"Here, regulations are such that whatever you do you are going to be in violation of the law.

"They should let us get on with our work."

Those who argue that economic integration will drain capital away from Western Europe towards new, low-cost member states miss a point, he says.

"Outsourcing is already happening, constitution or no constitution, and Europe is not part of it.

"To lower cost in the long-term you invest in Asia. Production of our components has already gone to China."

And other French business leaders - notably in the textile industry - view an emerging Asia as dangerous rival rather than a useful partner, but they also look favourably on EU integration and support the proposed constitution.

'Timid' Europeans

Martine Mutterer, who heads the textile group Siat & Lang in the eastern region of Alsace, believes that stronger institutions are needed to negotiate trade agreements on better terms for EU members.

"We should open up our markets without killing the rich countries of Europe," she says.

HAVE YOUR SAY
Hopefully, it will mean the beginning of the end for the idea of Europe as a nation
Brian, Kansas City, USA

"Europeans tend to be timid. There are so many views to take into account - agreeing a common position takes such a long time, so we punch below our weight.

"We should stop arguing and unite."

French corporate culture remains profoundly pro-European. According to a recent poll, only among very small firms that cater for purely local markets is there meaningful opposition to the constitution.

Both the main business lobby group, Medef, and the Centre for Young Entrepreneurs - which represents some 2,500 smaller and medium-sized companies - support the treaty.

Certainly, entrepreneurs have not intervened too loudly in the vigorous national debate - partly because a prominent endorsement would play into the hands of naysayers, particularly strong on the left, who contend that the constitution is shamelessly pro-corporate.

But if "Yes" wins on May 29, big sighs of relief will be heard in business suites across France.


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




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