Always volatile and unpredictable, the French electorate seems to be shaping up to taking on Chirac and his constitution (interestingly, it is being positioned as "his"). According to the latest opinion poll of 860 people, carried out on 19-20 March by Ipsos for Le Figaro, 52 percent are now saying that they will vote against the new treaty
This is the second poll in less than a week giving the "no" campaign a lead, the last one being published on 18 March for le Parisien, giving 51 percent "non" and 49 percent "oui". That poll also found that 53 per cent of voters are likely to abstain on 29 May.
In early March, the "no" campaign was only taking 40 percent of the poll and the baseline survey on voting sentiment, carried out by Eurobarometer in December, showed 48 percent in favour of the constitution, 17 percent opposed and 35 percent "don't knows".
The fall-off in support for the EU treaty is attributed to voter dissatisfaction with Chirac's unemployment record, which rose in January to a five-year high of 10 percent. Other factors include the unpopularity of Chirac's centre-right government, fears over Turkish entry into the EU, and the recent focus on a controversial proposal to liberalise EU service industries.
Described by former Socialist prime minister Laurent Fabius as a "foretaste of the European constitution," the so-called Bolkestein directive has been condemned by left-wing activists as a charter for "social dumping" and, although Chirac has himself condemned the directive, the issue has played strongly into the hands of his opponents.
The result of today's poll is said to have caused "consternation" in government ranks, particularly as the main factor boosting the "no" camp is seen as the conversion of many Socialist party voters, indicating that the referendum is taking on an entrenched party-political dimension, something which the government was keen to avoid.
Adding to Chirac's concern is the memory of the 1992 referendum on the Maastricht treaty which was won by just a whisker after the "yes" vote fell sharply in the campaign. And l'escroc also knows that many left-wingers resent having been made to vote for him against far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in the 2 May round of the 2002 election.
But the opposition Socialist party, which is officially campaigning for the constitution, is also deeply embarrassed as it has been unable to hold the line and keep its deep internal splits out of the limelight.
Observers in Brussels are watching with concern as it is unlikely that the constitution could survive a rejection by France. "If France votes no, the constitution is dead," said Daniel Keohane of the Centre for European Reform. "The momentum is on the no side. It's going to be difficult to regain and it's worrying."
Even former EU commission president Jacques Delors is weighing into the fray, warning that a "no" vote would cause a "political cataclysm" in France. "And in Europe it will open up a very serious crisis which will slow down European construction - at the expense of French interests," he said.
But, in the popularity stakes, it is hard to beat Frits Bolkestein, architect of the services directive, who has described the French opponents of his measure as "myopic and xenophobic", claiming that it also demonstrates anti-German feeling in France. "Only in France," he told Dutch TV yesterday, "is the Germanic character of my name so emphasised."
Looks like someone else is getting the measure of the French.