French voters were said tonight to have resoundingly rejected the EU Constitution, sending a defiant message to France’s political establishment and dealing a blow to plans for further European integration.
As polls closed around the country, the three major French polling organisations all reported a “no” vote of around 55-56 %, in line with opinion polls before today’s vote.
The rejection of the treaty, drafted by a panel headed by Valery Giscard d’Estaing, the former French president, leaves the ........
......... Constitution effectively dead in the water and the 25-nation European Union in crisis. It also means that Tony Blair may no longer need to argue the case for a Constitution in a UK referendum that had been due next year.
“It’s a massive ‘no’, a heavy rejection of the Constitution and a huge humiliation for President Chirac,” said Charles Bremner, Times correspondent in Paris. “It’s also a huge repudiation of the political establishment – all the major parties were in favour of this document.”
The size of the defeat – despite all the major political parties backing the Constitution – will make it very difficult for French or European leaders to argue for a repeat of the referendum, which had already been ruled out by the Chirac Government.
Bremner said that many voters had wanted to punish Chirac and his conservative government over unemployment that is at a five-year high of 10.2 % and for welfare reforms that had cut unemployment benefits. Many voters were also angered by the handling of the recent EU enlargement.
“The Constitution could have survived the Netherlands saying ‘no’, because it’s a smallish country, it could survive the Czech Republic rejecting it, which is a possibility, but it couldn’t survive France, a founding member, rejecting it, because France is a central pillar and a founding state,” Bremner added.
First official results were due around 10.00 pm UK time after people flocked to vote in fine weather following a fierce campaign that divided France. Two-thirds of voters had cast ballots three hours before the last polling stations closed, the Interior Ministry said.
Chirac, 72, said before the vote he would not quit even though opinion polls showed his gamble on a referendum rather than a safe ratification vote in parliament was likely to fail.
However, he is expected to dismiss unpopular Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin. Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin leads the race to replace him ahead of Defence Minister Michele Alliot-Marie and centre-right party leader Nicolas Sarkozy.
The constitution was signed by EU leaders last October in Rome after long and tough negotiations and requires the approval of all member states to go into force. Nine countries have approved it and it is intended to take effect in 2006.