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Chirac nervous on referendum

Posted by Richard Friday, February 04, 2005

Despite his confidence over the outcome of French EU constitution referendum vote, Chirac is not getting it all his own way.

According to a report by AFP today, the country's largest trade union defied its leadership to recommend a no vote in the national referendum later this year. This was the General Labour Confederation (CGT), which was until recently linked to the Communist Party (PC).

It voted overwhelmingly in its 120-member national committee to reject the constitution on the grounds that it will entrench free-market economics at the expense of "social priorities."

AFP reports that the decision, which was against the wishes of CGT secretary-general Bernard Thibault, came amid signs that a significant part of the French left is prepared to ignore the advice of its hierarchy and vote against the text when it is put to the people probably in June.

And, despite an internal ballot in favour of the treaty in December last year, the main opposition Socialist Party (PS) remains deeply divided - with 56 deputies out of 140 defying party leader Francois Hollande this week to abstain in a National Assembly debate on the issue.

With a recent wave of street protests indicating high levels of popular discontent in France, Chirac is now worrying that a tide of feeling against the constitution will overturn the "yes" vote currently predicted in the opinion polls.

In the 1992 referendum on the Maastricht treaty that paved the way to the EU's single currency, a strong early lead by supporters was whittled away to a razor-thin majority as voters used the opportunity to express unhappiness with then-president Francois Mitterrand.

Then, the first round of France's 2002 presidential election - in which nearly one in three voters chose candidates of the far-right or far-left - remains a warning of how easily the public can swing out of the political mainstream.

Many left-wing voters who reluctantly backed Chirac in round two of that election in order to defeat far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen feel it will be a humiliation too far to hand him another victory in the referendum on the constitution. the view is that they are not prepared to bail out l'escroc once again.

"There is a real danger that popular anger will lead a majority to reject the constitution in a sheer protest vote," the left-wing Liberation newspaper said in an editorial today.

Support for the constitutional treaty comes from Chirac's ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party, its ally the Union for French Democracy and the opposition Greens - assuring a clear majority in parliament.

Of the parliamentary parties, only the Communists formally oppose the treaty. Describing the CGT vote as "tremendous," party secretary Marie-George Buffet called on "workers to mobilise to ensure the failure of liberal policies and to use the referendum to demand different policies for France and Europe."

Also opposing the constitution is Le Pen's National Front as well as sovereignty advocates such as Philippe de Villiers on the right and former interior minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement on the left.