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Will the EU Constitution Survive a Referendum in France?

On February 28, 2005, a joint session of the French National Assembly and the Senate voted by a large majority to take three measures that will affect the future of France and the European Union.1 First, they amended the French constitution to make it compatible with the proposed EU constitutional treaty. Second, they agreed to allow a referendum on the European constitutional treaty to take place. That referendum is now scheduled for May 29. Finally, the French legislators voted to require that all future EU enlargements also be subject to referendum. The latter measure was largely designed to reassure voters that EU candidate Turkey will not enter the EU unless and until such a step is approved by the electorate in France.

So far, four EU countries have ratified the proposed treaty, but only Spain has done so by referendum. As widely anticipated, Spanish voters adopted the text with a 77% majority (though voter turnout was just 42%). The result of the French vote is likely to be much tighter than that. The lead so far enjoyed by the “Yes” vote is shrinking in the polls. A “No” vote is possible. The European constitution is a complex document and the referendum campaign is affected by issues that have little to do with it. While most major political parties support a positive vote, they feel uncomfortable campaigning on the same side of an issue and some leading figures among them—including former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius—are campaigning against the constitution. Most importantly, the issue of Turkey’s possible future entry in the European Union has largely overshadowed—if not hijacked—the constitutional debate. The conflation of the Turkey question with the issue of the constitution, along with the lack of clear, understandable reasons why the constitution is essential, may lead many otherwise pro-European French voters to vote “No” in the referendum, or not to vote at all.

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