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Europe

Crisis Deepens Over French EU Stance

Even as French voters look set to torpedo the EU constitution in a referendum, Luxembourg Premier Juncker added a new twist to the dilemma this week, saying the US hopes the French will reject the treaty.

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The 'non' camp is gaining strength

"I don't think that people in the US and the Anglo-Saxon countries would be unsatisfied with a French rejection," Juncker, whose country currently holds the EU's rotating presidency, said in an interview on French radio.

"That would in fact correspond with their idea of Europe as one that's weakened, because it would mean giving up the most noble of its ambitions for the future," he said.

EU-Gipfel: Der luxemburgische Premierminister Jean Claude Juncker

Luxembourg's Prime Minister Jean Claude Juncker is worried about the French referendum.

Juncker (photo) added that the US and other Anglo-Saxon countries had no sympathy for "the idea of a constitution, for this strengthening of Europe," and they didn't want Europe as "a completely responsible and competent player" on the world stage.

Juncker's comments come at a time of growing concern in France and elsewhere in on the continent that a French "non" to the treaty would effectively throw the entire European integration process into disarray.

Drawn up by former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the constitution is meant to simplify decision-making in the European Union but it must first be adopted by all 25 member states.

Six weeks before the planned French referendum on May 29, opinion polls show 55 percent support for 'no' with 45 percent backing the document.

Vote sparks infighting in government

Inside France, rejecting the constitution would gravely undermine the standing of President Jacques Chirac's government. But it would also set off a bitter internal war among the Socialists, whose leadership is campaigning in favor of the paper.

Jacques Chirac wirbt für EU Verfassung

French President Jacques Chirac during his television appearance in an attempt to lobby support for the EU constitution

Hopes that Chirac could revitalize the fortunes of the 'yes' camp in a two-hour appearance before a group of 80 young people have come to nothing. Chirac said during the television debate on Thursday that he will not personally resign if the constitution is rejected by the electorate, but the dismissal of a prime minister is the standard way for a French president to extricate himself from political difficulties.

On Tuesday there were clear signals that Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin (photo) will lose his job if opponents of the text win the referendum. Tensions over the continuing failure of the government's "yes" campaign spilled over at a weekly ministerial breakfast meeting with what officials described as a "very violent argument" between Raffarin and Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin.

Jean-Pierre Raffarin

French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin

Raffarin (photo) was reportedly furious about remarks made by Villepin in a radio interview Sunday that were openly critical of the way the government has handled the run-up to the May 29 vote and hinted at the prime minister's approaching replacement.

Concerns in Germany

Meanwhile, politicians in Germany seemed alarmed at the consequences for Europe of a French rejection.

German Interior Minister Otto Schily warned that a French 'no' would also be a serious setback for European home affairs and justice policies. "I really hope that the French people can be successfully convinced that they would be making a serious mistake if this referendum fails," Schily said Tuesday in Berlin.

Germany will not hold a referendum on the constitution but will put it to a vote before parliament. The Bundestag, the lower house of parliament, is set to ratify the treaty on May 12 -- ahead of the French referendum -- to give its neighbor a boost. The Bundesrat, the upper house, is expected to rubber-stamp it a few weeks later.

EU Gipfel in Brüssel Verfassung Joschka Fischer

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, however, put a brave face on the French crisis on Monday.

"I firmly believe that France, despite the current opinion polls, will vote 'yes'," he told Handelsblatt business daily. Fischer said that France's approval of the first EU constitution was crucial as "the founding nation of the European Union."

The Green party politician said the only alternative to allowing the treaty to come into force would be to revert to the 2000 Treaty of Nice, which EU leaders have described as a recipe for deadlock in an expanding bloc.

"It is an illusion to think one could reopen the constitutional package and renegotiate it. There will not be a better EU constitution in the foreseeable future," Fischer said.

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