At a French rally, bring your economics text

What does John Stuart Mill have to do with the European Union Constitution?

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Only in France does the campaign trail take you to such obscure corners of political philosophy.

In the canteen of a local primary school the other evening, a speaker representing the "Collective for a Left Wing 'No' " was earnestly explaining why French voters should reject the draft European Union (EU) Constitution at the referendum to be held at the end of this month.

The somewhat scruffy audience of intellectual-looking types, squeezed onto child-sized benches, listened attentively as he explained - article by detailed article - how the charter would tear apart France's treasured safety net of social protection in the name of a "liberal free- market economy."

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As soon as he had finished, a member of the public leapt to his feet.

"What is wrong with liberalism?" he wanted to know. Another member of the public raised his hand. "What do we actually mean by liberalism?" he wondered. "Should we not refer instead to ultraliberalism?"

There followed, for several intellectually challenging minutes, a debate worthy of the Sorbonne about the relative merits of different schools of economic thought. John Stuart Mill's name was tossed out. Friedrich von Hayek, a fierce exponent of free- market capitalism, was vilified. References to wealth distribution flew.

None of this had much to do with the text of the Constitution, but that didn't matter. For the crowd in this room, incongruously decorated with children's paintings, one view mattered most: the Constitution made state intervention in the economy virtually impossible, and that was a bad thing.

Nothing could have been further from the minds of a very different audience that gathered the next evening in the tidy little village of Epone, 30 miles outside Paris, to hear Michèle Alliot-Marie, the energetic defense minister, lay out her case for a 'Yes' vote.

Dressed neatly and conservatively, the 350 businessmen, retirees, and other assorted supporters of the right-wing government were on their best behavior for their distinguished visitor.

They gave her a standing ovation as she bounced onto the stage of the new village hall and launched into a passionate defense of European unity, presenting the Constitution as a key building block for the Continent's future.

Like the left-wing enthusiasts the night before, Ms. Alliot-Marie was preaching to the converted. "Looking at the hall, I don't see many people who are likely to disagree with my ideas," she said.

But question time revealed the sort of doubts they harbored: worries about Turkey's eventual entry into the EU, the danger that EU law would override national legislation, fears for the future of agricultural subsidies to farmers.

One member of the audience, retired Army officer Raymond Barbey, said that Alliot-Marie had not cleared up all his doubts.

"I have not yet decided by any means how I will vote," he said. "There are still many things that offend me," about the Constitution.

To judge by Mr. Barbey's well thumbed copy of the text, he had at least read it carefully. That's no easy feat: The version sent to every voter's mailbox was 191 densely printed pages.

And its scope is dizzying, with everything from a sweeping preamble affirming human dignity, to a nit-picking protocol on the purchase of holiday homes in Denmark.

Most voters are less conscientious, and are apparently both confused and divided by the radically different interpretations that 'Yes' and 'No' proponents (themselves scattered across the political spectrum) are giving to the text.

The latest opinion polls show France split evenly down the middle, with both sides neck and neck, less than three weeks before the vote. With the outcome so uncertain, Alliot-Marie urged her listeners to carry the campaign into their homes and workplaces.

"You have to talk to your family, your friends, and your workmates - to convince them to vote 'Yes,' " she exhorted. "I am looking for votes one by one."

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