A poll published in France on Friday showed that 51 percent of French voters could vote "no" in a referendum on the European constitution. A rejection by the French could kill the treaty.
Chirac knows that the future of the Constitution hangs in the balance
Experts expressed fears on Saturday that growing French negativism may doom the proposed constitution for the European Union, but they also blamed the ineptness of politicians in Brussels and Paris for a crisis that may seriously set back the EU.
They were commenting on the results of a poll published in France on Friday that indicated by 51 percent of French voters may reject the constitution in a referendum on May 29. Forty-nine percent said they backed the text.
"If France votes no, the constitution is dead and this poll is not good," said Daniel Keohane of the Centre for European Reform in London. "The momentum is on the no side. It's going to be difficult to regain and it's worrying."
The constitution, which was adopted by EU heads of state and government in June, was intended to streamline the EU's administration to accommodate its expanding membership, define a charter of fundamental rights for citizens and create a president and foreign minister for Europe, among other things. The constitution would replace the existing Rome and Maastricht treaties on which the EU is founded.
Spains Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero speaks at the opening of the European Constitution campaign in Madrid in February.
Since it is itself a treaty, it cannot come into force until it has been ratified in every member country, either through a popular referendum as in France, or a popular vote. Spain became the first country to approve the constitution by referendum last month.
Past shows French power decides
Experts concurred that a negative vote by France, one of the six original founders of the European integration project in 1957, would be a disastrous setback for the EU.
"If you want to be positive, you could say that this poll is going to be an electro-shock." said Marielle de Sarnez, a member of the European Parliament and a fervent supporter of the constitution. "But the risk is large: if France, a founding country, says no to the constitution, it will be as if it were saying no to Europe."
She added that the consequences could be as serious as France's rejection in 1954 of a proposed European defense community, which set defense cooperation back by quarter of a century. Then in 1992 French voters only narrowly approved the Maastricht treaty.
"I don't want to be a pessimist, but I think we've started very badly," said Yves Meny, president of the European University Institute in Florence. "We are on a very slippery slope that will be extraordinarily difficult to climb again."
Meny said he was not sure the French would be susceptible to the argument that by voting no, they would be dooming the EU to a profound crisis.
Politicians accused of stoking crisis
Analysts were scathing in their criticism of both EU and French politicians for stoking the crisis. The former, for example, chose this moment to plug an unpopular directive, devised by former commissioner Frits Bolkestein, that aims to open up to competition in national public service sectors such as health and education. French public workers went on strike earlier this month against what they see as a threat to the country's vaunted public service tradition.
Yet European Commission President Jose Durao Barroso Monday criticized France and other countries that are resisting the directive because of fears it will lead to "social dumping" as a result of competition from low-wage countries.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso faces a crisis if the French vote no.
"Barroso hasn't proved that he is up to the job," said de Sarnez. "It's unbelievable that he doesn't listen a little. The commission should also take the concerns of public opinion into account."
Meny accused the commission of "waving a red flag" by supporting what is known as the country of origin principle, which means that a company can trade anywhere in the EU provided only that it obey the rules and regulations of its own country.
Confusion over Bolkestein and constitution
Unions have said this will put French social services in direct competition with those in the east with lower labor costs and standards. But analysts critized French politicians for allowing a confusion to develop in the public mind between the constitution and the so-called Bolkestein directive. Even President Jacques Chirac does not always make the distinction, said Marco Incerti of the Center for European Policy Studies.
De Sarnez said French citizens were wary of Europe because their politicians so often present it as a scapegoat. Meny said they fail to live up to their "enormous responsibility" by not sufficiently talking the truth.