French President Jacques Chirac is leading an offensive to convince reluctant French voters of the merits of the EU constitution.
He wants a "oui"
Badly rattled by opinion polls showing that enemies of the EU's new constitution will win France's referendum in May, supporters of a "yes" vote inside both the government and the socialist party (PS) opposition launched a long-awaited offensive Thursday to regain lost ground.
To the delight of political allies who say he has not done enough to mobilize opinion, President Jacques Chirac announced that he will make his first public contribution to the campaign in a televised debate with young people on April 7. Afterwards, he plans to appear in TV ads to explain the constitution to French voters and its importance.
At the same time the energetic head of Chirac's Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party, Nicolas Sarkozy, appeared on the television talk show "100 minutes to convince," where he pushed the merits of the constitution in a heated discussion with one of its leading opponents.
"I will engage all my energies to tell the French one thing: the rules that Europe operates under have to change," Sarkozy said on TV as reported by AFP. "There is not one element in the constitution -- not a single one -- that will make the situation worse. On the contrary there are many that will make things better."
Left making trouble
Meanwhile Francois Bayrou, president of the UMP's coalition partner the Union for French Democracy (UDF), held his first public meeting outside the northern city of Lille.
A majority skeptical
And on the political left PS leader Francois Hollande, who is opposed on the constitution issue by about half of his own party's rank-and-file, appeared at a campaign rally in the southern city of Marseille.
"It will be a chance to say yes to the yes and no to the no - because we are well aware that a 'no' in France would be the end of political Europe," Hollande told AFP.
Afraid of losing jobs
Supporters of the EU's constitution have watched in horror over the past two weeks as five successive opinion polls have put the "no" campaign for the May 29 referendum in the lead with between 51 and 55 percent of the vote.
The growth of the "no" camp has been strongest on the political left, fed by a wave of social discontent as voters increasingly identify the EU with their most pressing concerns: 10 percent unemployment, stagnant wage packets and the flight of jobs to low-protection economies in the east.
Debating with Sarkozy, a leading socialist opponent on the constitution, Henri Emmanuelli, said it was a "liberal" treaty which would bind all future European governments into following free-market economics.
Sarkozy retorted that it was the first European text in 50 years to contain -- in the charter of fundamental rights -- a "social ambition."
"All the trade unions in Europe are calling for a vote in favour ... Are all Europe's trade unionists, are all the European socialist parties wrong."
The constitution is meant to streamline decision-making in the expanding bloc by creating posts of president and foreign minister and adapting voting procedures. However, it must first be approved by all 25 members, and a rejection in so large a country as France would be an unprecedented setback.
Chirac's ruling center-right UMP and its centrist ally the UDF are both enthusiastic supporters of the text, as is PS leader Hollande and other socialist heavyweights such as former ministers Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Jack Lang.
But the opposition now embraces a wide coalition including the far-right National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen, traditionalist anti-Europeans such as Philippe de Villier's Movement for France, the far-left Trotskyites and Communists and the left-wing of the PS.