Unlikely threat to EU charter? The French.

Five opinion polls released this week show opponents of the European Union's charter clearly ahead of supporters.

Europe's most ambitious dream, a continent-wide constitution, may founder on a most unexpected rock. France, long a driving force behind the European Union (EU), is increasingly hostile to the charter, a key symbol of Europe's march toward integration.

As voters prepare for a May 29 referendum on the subject, five opinion polls in recent days put opponents of the constitution clearly ahead of supporters. But as the government went into high gear this week to try to turn the tide, public debate suggests that French doubts are rooted less in the legal text than in skepticism about the very idea of a united Europe.

"France is suffering a very serious crisis of confidence in itself," says Hervé Morin, a parliamentary deputy for the centrist Union for French Democracy (UDF). "When you are sure of yourself, a new horizon is motivating. But when you are in search of your identity, you see Europe as a threat."

The text must be ratified by all 25 members of the EU, so a French "non" would scuttle the process, throwing the union's future into doubt.

France is currently suffering a bout of malaise: 10 percent unemployment, stagnant economic growth, and falling purchasing power have brought hundreds of thousands of protesters into the streets in recent weeks.

The government fears that voters will use the referendum to express dissatis-faction with its performance: 66 percent of respondents to one poll this week said that the economic and social situation would be an "important" or "decisive" factor when they made their choice.

At a deeper level, though, many in France see the European Constitution, which enshrines the free market economy as a guiding principle, as the embodiment of a new, economically liberalizing union that they do not like. The new president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, has made economic reform a top priority.

At the same time, the French have begun to realize that in the enlarged EU, which took in ten new members, mostly from Eastern Europe, last year, Paris can no longer call the shots.

"The French do not have as much influence over the EU as they used to," says Daniel Keohane, an analyst at the Center for European Reform, a think tank in London. "There is a sense that Britain, the Scandinavians, and the new members are setting the economic agenda" instead of respecting French traditions such as high job security, heavy social-welfare charges, and intervention to save threatened industries.

One of the leaders of the "no" campaign in France, Socialist Senator Jean-Luc Mélenchon, voiced such fears forcefully on French radio the other evening. "This is the law of the jungle turned into a constitution," he complained. "I do not want a constitution that imposes a principle - free and unfettered [economic] competition - with which I do not agree."

The anticonstitution forces have enjoyed particular success with their attacks on a proposed EU law that would allow service providers such as architects, computer consultants, or hairdressers from one member country to work freely in any other.

The European Commission sees the directive as a way of encouraging growth in the service sector that accounts for 70 percent of EU jobs. In France, the project was widely condemned as "social dumping" that would lead low-cost Eastern European firms to take jobs from French artisans and professionals.

Fearful that the planned law was fueling the "non" campaign, and unhappy with it himself, French President Jacques Chirac forced the commission last week to take the bill back to the drawing board, thundering at an EU summit that "ultra-liberalism is as great a menace as communism in its day."

The sudden uproar over a piece of legislation that merely extended the fundamental rules of a single market - the EU's raison d'être - to the services sector is a sign, says French commentator Alain Duhamel, that "Europe is an anxiety generator" in today's France.

"Once, Europe was France writ large in the French imagination, and it was a comfortable idea," he adds. "Now the French don't think Europe looks like France at all."

Nor does the fact that the constitution was drafted by a convention chaired by a former French president, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, appear to help. In fact, it may hurt the charter's prospects in France, since he epitomizes the elitist political class that built the EU over the past 50 years.

They worked with little regard for public opinion, and today "there is a disconnect between the political and business elites, which are pro-European, and a badly informed public which is fearful," says Jean Paul Tran Thiet, a former Eurocrat who now works at the Montaigne Institute, a think tank in Paris.

"We have heard a bit from the media [about the constitution] but not much - just what the politicians wanted to tell us," says Borgia Brousse, a caretaker in Burgundy. "We know we have to go vote, but I'm not sure what for."

The danger, says Mr. Duhamel, who supports the constitution, is that "the European Union is being made the scapegoat for people's dissatisfaction." A "non" vote, however, would only make things worse, he fears. "France would not be taken seriously in the future."

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