A divided France voted Sunday on the European Union's first-ever constitution, with final opinion polls pointing towards a "no" that would send a shockwave across the continent.
A divided France goes to the polls
Polling stations opened at 8:00 a.m. to the country's 42 million eligible voters, and were to remain open nationwide until 8:00 pm, with residents of Paris and Lyon given an extra two hours to cast their ballots.
After a hard-fought campaign that mesmerized and polarized the country, the last opinion polls released Friday indicated that opponents of the landmark EU charter would prevail, with between 51 and 56 percent of the vote.
But with about one in five French voters expected to make their decision at the last minute, "everything is possible," as the Le Parisien newspaper wrote Sunday in its front-page headline.
Rejection of the constitution, which aims to simplify decision-making in the expanded 25-member bloc, would likely spark a period of political uncertainty both in the EU and in France, one of the Union's six founding members.
Other EU countries fear that a French "non" also would unleash a domino effect across the continent, influencing voters in the Netherlands, Poland, Denmark and Britain to say "no" in future referendums.
Vote results were not to be released before 10:00 p.m., so as not to prejudice last-minute voters. Due to the time difference, the 1.4 million voters in France's overseas territories went to the polls on Saturday.
When President Jacques Chirac, whose ruling center-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) is leading the "yes" campaign, called for a referendum on the EU text last year, treaty supporters had a comfortable lead in the opinion polls.
"No" camp has an edge
Now, the "no" camp -- capitalizing on the increasing unpopularity of the government -- seems to have the edge, and the 72-year-old French leader is counting on the country's undecided voters to turn the tables.
Chirac's UMP is campaigning alongside its junior partner in government, the Union for French Democracy (UDF), as well as the opposition Socialist party (PS) and the Greens -- a coalition of France's mainstream political elite.
They are facing a disparate "no" camp made up of the far-right National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the Communist and Trotskyist parties, nationalist Euroskeptics and the former Socialist prime minister Laurent Fabius.
Pollsters say that pro-European Socialist party supporters -- tempted to follow Fabius and vote "no" but fearful of the consequences -- will be the key, along with voter turnout.
French President Jacques Chirac before addressing a French television program on Sunday's referendum on the EU constitution at the Elysee Palace in Paris, Thursday May 26, 2005.
A come-from-behind victory for the "yes" camp would bolster Chirac, allow EU officials in Brussels to breathe a sign of relief and keep the EU treaty on track ahead of a consultative referendum in the Netherlands on Wednesday.
A string of European leaders travelled to France to make the case for the constitution including German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, insisting there is no "plan B".
The French president, who has staked his prestige on approval of the treaty, has warned voters that a French "no" would diminish the country's influence in Europe, indeed making it the "black sheep" of the continent.
What rejection would mean
Rejection of the treaty would have a profound political impact in France, tarnishing Chirac's record in the history books, prompting a government reshuffle and deepening the rift in the Socialist party.
No matter what the outcome on Sunday, Chirac is expected to dismiss his unpopular Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, with Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin and Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie his possible successors.
Should France reject the treaty, Chirac -- who celebrated his 10th year as president earlier this month -- would be unlikely to seek a third term in office in 2007, opening the door to his arch-rival, UMP leader Nicolas Sarkozy (photo).
Chirac has however ruled out his resignation should the "no" camp prevail. The constitution must be ratified by all 25 member states. So far, nine EU countries have approved the treaty -- Austria, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain.