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Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 May, 2005, 19:12 GMT 20:12 UK
Strasbourg split on EU vote
By Henri Astier
BBC News, Strasbourg

When it comes to attitudes about the proposed European Union constitution in the most European of French cities, it is a tale of two Strasbourgs.

The regional capital of Alsace co-hosts the European Parliament, and is home to the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights. The picture-perfect central area is like an EU theme park.

Central Strasbourg
Central Strasbourg has a distinctly pan-European feel
It is bedecked with flags from every member state, and the municipality has put up banners welcoming the 10 new entrants.

But a few blocks away, you find a different Strasbourg - one that is very French, and where national frustrations are being vented in the campaign over Sunday's referendum.

A survey of shopkeepers' attitudes provides a strikingly contrasting view of the two cities.

'Important for business'

The area around the cathedral is a colourful mixture of Greek restaurants, Irish pubs, Latvian art galleries, German beer houses, Italian designer outlets, and Portuguese cafes. You even find a few places selling French products.

Strasbourg shopkeepers cannot be against the constitution - Europe is our future
Gerard Laine
Cafe owner
Many of those running the foreign shops cannot vote. But Birgitta Boulay, a friendly Swede who runs a Scandinavian boutique, speaks for many local shopkeepers when she says: "I hope the Yes vote will win. What has been started must be completed. And Europe is so important for businesses here!"

The head of the Strasbourg shopkeepers' association, Pierre Bardet, emphatically agrees: "It is important for our European image for the Yes vote to win. A victory for No would hurt our interests."

Gerard Laine, owner of Le Montmartre, a cafe a stone's throw from the cathedral, says he is "100%" behind the "Yes" campaign.

I oppose the treaty - I am fed up with Europe and all the red tape it generates
Corinne Mekhaldi
Shop owner
"It would be immoral to vote 'No'," he thunders. "Strasbourg shopkeepers cannot be against the constitution. Europe is our future."

Mr Laine is so enthusiastic about the EU that he cannot imagine that France could reject the constitution.

"I am absolutely sure that the 'Yes' vote will win," he says, before helpfully rushing to give directions in German to a passing tourist who appears to be lost.

Ranting students

But Strasbourg's model European village extends only so far.

Outside the centre of the city there is plenty of anti-EU feeling
Across the Rhine River, you get a different picture. Posters calling for a "No" vote are in evidence. Foreign flags are not.

Opponents of the constitution appear to be particularly vocal in the student area just east of city.

Marie Bildstein, who owns a bakery there, says: "Not a day goes by without students coming here to rant against the treaty."

Ms Bildstein says she does not respond to such proselytising - and keeps her pro-"Yes" opinion to herself.

A few hundred yards away, Corinne Mekhaldi, who owns a second-hand clothes shop, makes no bones about her views.

"I oppose the treaty," she says. "I am fed up with Europe and all the red tape it generates."

She says that when she opened her first shop in 1978, she employed 10 people. Now, because of "stifling" EU labour regulations, she only has one shop assistant and is thinking of packing up and resettling in Canada.

Tobacco gloom

But among Strasbourg's shopkeepers, those most solidly opposed to the proposed constitution are the tobacconists.

Patrick Merck, tobacconists' association
Patrick Merck finds EU tobacco policy illogical
The profession in the Alsace region has been deeply hurt by increases in cigarette taxes since 2002, which mean that a packet on the French side of the border is 20% more expensive than in neighbouring Germany.

"You have to be barmy to buy your smokes in France," says Christophe Nonnenbacher, as he lights up in a cafe in central Strasbourg.

Since most French smokers are rational - at least with their money - cigarette sales have plummeted across Alsace.

Tobacconists across the region are angry, and many plan to seize the opportunity offered by the referendum to vent their anger.

"I will vote No," says Yves Henrion, a tobacconist in Saint-Louis in southern Alsace whose turnover has almost halved in the past two years. Aged 60, he would like to retire but can find no buyers for his shop.

The tobacconists' revolt in Strasbourg is spearheaded by Patrick Merck, who heads the local professional association.

"We are campaigning against this constitution," he says. "It says nothing about harmonising cigarette taxes across the EU or restricting cross-border sales."

Like many in his profession, Mr Merck regards officials both in Brussels and Paris as health fanatics bent on destroying the tobacco business.

"When Europe imposed health warnings, the French government decided to cover half of the cigarette packets with 'Smoking kills' signs.

"On the one hand, we treat tobacco as if it was dynamite. But at the same time, we allow people to carry it freely across EU borders. Where is the logic in that?"

Mr Merck is distributing pamphlets urging people to vote "No" in 75 out of the city's 125 tobacco shops.

It is hard to tell which side of Strasbourg will prevail on 29 May - the happy European centre or the frustrated French outskirts.

But regardless of the result, the city will remain divided.


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




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