France wraps up heated campaign on EU constitution

The French were closing a tumultuous and divisive referendum campaign Friday about Europe's future and their place in it, with rebellious, disgruntled voters seemingly determined to rattle the continent and President Jacques Chirac by saying "non!" to the European Union's first constitution.

A "no" on Sunday would make France the first country to reject the landmark treaty _ a result that could throw Europe's forward momentum into disarray, especially if the Dutch follow the French lead in their referendum three days later.

By Friday, the last day of campaigning, polls gave the "no" camp a 10-point lead over supporters of the constitution, with a 55-45 split.

The result could hinge on the turnout Sunday and a pool of voters who either were undecided, hesitant or not telling pollsters whether they would say "yes" or "no."

Some 42 million people are eligible to vote. Balloting starts Saturday in France's overseas territories. Polling stations on the French mainland open at 8 a.m. (0600 GMT) Sunday, with voting ending 14 hours later.

More than two years in the making, backed by much of the French political elite but widely opposed on the left, the treaty is meant to be the European Union's next big step in a 50-year process of bringing together nations and peoples divided for centuries by war.

With his prestige and hopes for Europe on the line, Chirac made a dramatic last-ditch effort to save the continentwide constitution _ warning his countrymen in a televised address Thursday that they hold "France's destiny in their hands."

Urging voters to think of their children, Chirac said a "oui" will enable France to "defend its interests and remain one of the motors of Europe."

But a "non" could bring dire consequences, he warned.

"What a responsibility if France, a founder nation of Europe, took the risk of breaking the union of our continent," he said.

He urged the French not to turn the plebiscite into a sanction vote against his government _ a temptation for those angered by persistent high unemployment, sluggish economic growth and reforms to France's cherished social protections.

Two European leaders _ German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero _ were campaigning in France on Friday for a "yes" _ despite accusations from treaty opponents that it amounted to meddling in French affairs.

All 25 European countries must approve the charter, either in parliament or by referendums, for it to take effect in 2006. Germany cleared the treaty Friday, becoming the ninth nation to do so.

"The procedures have been completed in nine countries representing over 220 million citizens. That is almost 49 percent of EU population," said European Commission spokesman Mikolaj Dowgielewicz in Brussels. "The Commission thinks this is a very important reason why the ratification procedures should go forward."

For the French, the weight of the decision rested heavily on the shoulders of many voters, dominating discussion at dinner tables and water coolers. On Thursday evening, a band of "no" voters gathered in a smoky cafe in Paris to blow off steam.

Thumbing through French translations of the 448-clause text as a pair of mangy parakeets squawked in a cage, participants _ mostly communists and leftists _ passed around a microphone to take turns savaging EU headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.

"A thousand lawyers couldn't explain this constitution," said Jean La Pierre, waving a clenched fist. "A lot of these articles are completely vague. Are they good or bad for France? Who can say?"

Supporters say the constitution will give Europe a political dimension it hasn't had before, helping transform a free trade bloc into a stronger united force with a president and foreign minister to boost its international clout.

The "yes" camp pledges that nations will be able to maintain their cultural identities, welfare systems and public services _ concerns that resonate in France, with its tradition of generous state aid.

"No" voters, spread across the political spectrum from far-right to far-left, fear the treaty will let unfettered capitalism flourish, strip away national sovereignty and bring an influx of cheap labor from former Soviet bloc countries that joined the EU last year.

In some cases, debate about the constitution was so passionate, so guttural, that it dropped to the level of school-yard taunting.

Olivier Besancenot of the Revolutionary Communist League, in a heated television debate, said Chirac exaggerated the treaty's importance and terrorized French voters "into believing that if we vote 'No,' we're going to be deported to Antarctica or who knows where."

The debate brought together bizarre, disparate bands of politicians on either side. Most of the mainstream right and Socialist politicians backed the constitution, though there were many dissenters, even among Chirac's party.

Those pushing for a "no" included the Communists and the extreme-right National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen. Many in that camp believe the treaty can be rewritten and improved if it is rejected.

Not so, many European leaders said.

In one memorable campaign scene, former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing _ who oversaw the document's drafting _ took a pin from his lapel and popped a balloon marked "Plan B," underscoring the message that there is no fallback project.

ANGELA DOLAND, Associated Press Writer

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