French voters rejected a proposed European Union constitution Sunday, igniting a political crisis in the alliance and dealing a sharp blow to French President Jacques Chirac.
With nearly all ballots counted, the Interior Ministry reported that 55.5% of voters had rejected the constitution and 44.5% had approved it.
Although the defeat had been predicted in recent polls, the result was nonetheless remarkable. France, a founder of the European Union and its powerhouse for decades, may have scuttled an ambitious plan -- written by a former French president -- to make the alliance a stronger, more cohesive political entity.
Nine EU nations have approved the document, but it needs to be ratified by all 25 members to take effect. Although some prominent French and European leaders warned that France’s rejection would doom the larger ratification process, others said that a second-chance vote might be possible.
The document would strengthen the powers of the EU presidency, its foreign affairs representative and its Parliament, and would streamline decision-making to ease the integration of the 10 nations who joined last year.
But many French voters expressed discontent with the EU, saying it had become an aloof, undemocratic bureaucracy that had grown too fast. They feared the new constitution would hurt French living standards by unleashing economic competition and immigration from poorer countries in Eastern Europe.
The defeat was a devastating repudiation for Chirac, now in his 10th year in office. As an elder statesman, he gambled by submitting the issue to voters instead of following the safer path of legislative approval, chosen by eight out of the nine other member states that have endorsed the document so far.
Some rivals demanded Sunday that Chirac resign, arguing that the dramatic result revealed a chasm between the government and an angry electorate.
The 72-year-old Chirac ignored the sniping. He gave a short speech promising to respond to the voters’ concerns by quickly overhauling his government -- a statement seen by many as indication that he plans to replace embattled Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin.
“Make no mistake, France’s decision inevitably creates a difficult context for the defense of our interests in Europe,” Chirac said. He added that EU leaders would consider their options at a regularly scheduled meeting in Brussels next month.
Because the European Union is an arcane work-in-progress, an evolving alliance of nations with interconnected economies, predominantly open borders and often divergent political cultures, it is not completely clear what will happen next.
EU leaders insisted the ratification process would continue because 15 members had not yet voted.
“The ratification procedure must be pursued in other countries,” Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg, which has not weighed in on the charter, said at a news conference Sunday night in Brussels.
Another referendum is to take place Wednesday in the Netherlands. Dutch resentment of immigration and vast subsidies to the EU have pushed the “no” camp well into the lead there, opinion polls show.
Some European officials have suggested France and any other countries that reject the proposed constitution could hold new votes or try to renegotiate disputed aspects of the text. But Juncker, who currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU, said Sunday it would be impossible to renegotiate the treaty.
In a joint statement, Juncker and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, who oversees the EU’s day-to-day affairs, noted the gloomy repercussions of the French vote Sunday.
“We regret the choice coming from a member state that for 50 years has been one of the essential motors of the construction of our common future,” the leaders’ statement said.
They added that European leaders must analyze the reasons behind the apparent hostility to the EU, and that they should explain to their citizens that the proposed constitution is intended to respond to complaints about the bloc’s ineffectiveness.
Among the reasons for drafting the new constitution was a desire to change rules that have become increasingly cumbersome for a 25-member union, such as requiring unanimous approval of many initiatives. The proposal also called for having an elected president for 2 1/2 years rather than the current revolving presidency that shifts to another country every six months.
The EU will continue to function based on existing treaties. But the defeat of the proposed constitution suddenly makes the leadership role of France -- along with Germany -- in the bloc uncertain.
The two countries have tried to shape the EU as a global counterweight to the U.S. and China. But Germany is reeling from the defeat of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s party in recent regional elections. Sunday’s developments in France may only exacerbate the decline in influence of the Franco-German alliance, and signal the rise of Poland and other Eastern European nations that are more pro-American, more free-marketoriented and more likely to align with Britain, which is ambivalent toward the EU and often clashes with France and Germany.
Western European voters did not get a chance to vote on the recent eastward expansion of the EU, fueling some resentment. Adding to voter discontent Sunday was the bureaucratic prose of the lengthy proposed constitution, which was penned by former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing.
During the campaign on the referendum in France, critics ridiculed the text as quintessentially convoluted EU-speak and depicted Giscard as an out-of-touch elitist.
A beautician in the industrial suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis north of Paris said Sunday she had voted against the referendum to send a blunt message to her government: Do something about 10% unemployment at home before inviting poorer countries into the club.
“I also voted ‘no’ to make the politicians react,” said Emeline Pradenc, 24. “They need to wake up and understand that the people are worried about their future.... I am not against the EU, but I am against the fact that ... we should pay for the other countries.
“It makes me sick to think that people from [other EU countries] work in France for less money,” she added. “This is how companies end up firing massively because it costs less to hire workers.”
Like Pradenc, many “no” voters were young, working-class people worried about protecting France’s generous employment benefits, healthcare programs and public services, according to pollsters. The campaign against the proposal was led by parties on the far left and far right.
Voters favoring the constitution tended to be better-educated, higher-income professionals who believed that expansion and the accompanying political integration would eventually create lucrative new markets for Western Europe. Support was also strong among senior citizens who saw European unity as a shield against the wars and deprivation of the first half of the 20th century.
In addition to Chirac’s support, the proposed EU constitution had the endorsement of the main opposition party, the center-left Socialists.
But one faction of Socialists rebelled against the party’s official stance, arguing that Europe deserved a better document that focused more on social programs. Their defection probably sealed the fate of the referendum.
Opponents of the constitution said the rebuff of both the Socialists and Chirac’s center-right coalition showed the alienation of the French from their governing elite. They accused politicians, business leaders and the media of trying to browbeat voters into approving the constitution with warnings of political and economic chaos.
“This is a big slap to a whole system that wanted to control our way of thinking,” said Phillippe de Villiers, head of a small rightist party that opposed the document. “A big disconnect between the institutional country and the real country.”
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The EU constitution vote
France’s 41.7 million registered voters were asked: “Do you approve the proposed law authorizing the ratification of the treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe?”
The results: In a referendum, French voters rejected the European Union’s first constitution, a charter aimed at strengthening the EU. It needs ratification by all 25 member states.
The effect: The “no” is a repudiation of French President Jacques Chirac and casts doubt on increased European integration. Possible responses are a repeat vote or an altered constitution.
The voters’ concerns: The vote reflects fear of a loss of the French identity, faltering economies in EU states and the perceived arrogance of leaders.
A look at the European Union
Number of nations: 25
Population: 455.8 million
Largest nation: Germany: 82.2 million
Smallest nation: Malta: 397,000
Area: 1.5 million square miles
EU GDP: $11 trillion (roughly equal to the U.S. GDP)
Anticipated members: Bulgaria, Romania in 2007
Sources: European Union, Associated Press
Achrene Sicakyuz of The Times’ Paris Bureau contributed to this report.