After a large voter turnout, France has overwhelmingly said "non" to the proposed EU constitution. Projections released immediately after polls closed show between 54.5 and 55.6 percent voted against the document.
The answer is "no"
It was not much of a surprise, since surveys for several weeks have shown the "no" camp to be in the lead. Despite an urgent, last-minute appeal from President Jacques Chirac, a majority of French voters were not convinced that the proposed constitution, which was designed to simplify decision making after the EU's enlargement last year, was in their best interests.
The sharp defeat for the charter, which has been dreaded by EU leaders, could weaken France, one of the central pillars of the European Union. Supporters have said a defeat could stall European integration and unsettle some financial markets.
"The decision of France inevitably creates a difficult context for defending our interests in Europe," Chirac said in an address broadcast on national television.
But cheers went up from supporters of the "No" campaign when the exit polls results were announced just after voting ended at 2200 central European time. Those who rejected the treaty included Communists, various left-wing groups, dissident socialists and far-right parties.
With the French rejection, the EU constitution in its current form has been dealt a potentially fatal blow and the future path of the European bloc is unclear. The charter needed the ratification of all 25 EU states to go into effect. France was the tenth country to decide about the document. Previously, nine EU member states had given their approval.
The question now is whether the ratification process will continue in the remaining EU states that have not yet voted. French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier said the vote was a "real disappointment," but added that other EU countries should go ahead with their own votes regardless.
Setback for president
The results are a blow to French President Jacques Chirac, who had campaigned hard for the charter's passage, including broadcasting a last-minute appeal on French television just days before Sunday's vote.
The vote was seen by many to be as much about the popularity of Chirac and his government as about the future course of the EU. The bitter debate divided France and became a debate on France's overall malaise and fears that low-wage new member countries in eastern Europe could be dangerous to France's economic health.
French far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen and eurosceptic Philippe de Villiers urged Chirac to step down on Sunday. Previously, Chirac had said he would not quit after the vote.
French President Jacques Chirac leaves the polling station after casting his vote in Sarran, southwestern France Sunday May 29, 2005 in a referendum on the EU constitution.
However, after the results came in, Chirac said he would make a decision on the future of his center-right government "in the coming days" after French voters overwhelmingly rejected the EU constitution. It's largely expected he will dismiss unpopular Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin.
Not dead yet
The head of the European Socialist Party Poul Nyrup Rasmussen lamented Sunday France's rejection of the EU constitution, saying it was a "sad day" for Europe but insisting that the charter was not dead.
"This is a sad, sad day for France and a sad day for Europe too," he said in a statement after exit polls indicated that some 55 percent of French voters rejected the constitution.
"But rumors of the constitution's demise have been greatly exaggerated," he added. "We must not read the 'non' in France as a 'non' to Europe. This is not the last word on the European constitution.
And he added: "The French people wished to reject a tired and unpopular government that has failed to represent the concerns of ordinary people in France."
The Dutch are scheduled to vote on the charter on Wednesday. Dutch ministers urged their citizens to ignore the result in France.
If the constitution does not survive, the EU will continue to operate under its current rules, which were laid out in the Treaty of Nice. But the system is seen as largely unworkable with a union of 25 countries, since voting could soon become paralyzed. Opponents want the EU to redraft a proposed constitution and improve it, putting in safeguards against labor from new member states dragging on wages and adding protections for Europe's social market economy.