French vote creates uncertainty over EU constitution

French voters reject the EU's new constitution, casting doubt on the document's fate.

France's rejection of the proposed European Union constitution on Sunday has cast doubt on the fate of the document meant to define EU members' relationship with each other.

About 55 per cent voted against it in a referendum that saw a turnout of 70 per cent of France's registered voters.

The treaty, which defines the EU's role and relationship with member countries, has already been approved by nine countries, although France was the first to put it to a binding referendum. It must be ratified by all 25 member states before it can take effect as planned by Nov. 1, 2006.

The nine that have already accepted the constitution are Austria, Hungary, Italy, Germany, Greece, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain.

On Monday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said it's too early to say whether the U.K. will also hold a referendum on the constitution.

Officials in Britain had previously said there would be no point in holding a referendum on a proposed constitution already rejected by another country.

But in Ireland, Foreign Affairs Minister Dermot Ahern said his country will go ahead with a referendum.

The Dutch will vote on Wednesday on the constitution, where surveys suggest it could suffer the same fate as it did at the hands of French voters.

French vote may spark uncertainty

If the constitution is not unanimously ratified, the EU will continue as a political entity under existing treaties. However, France's referendum decision could mean economic and political uncertainty.

According to the New York Times, France's rejection "could paralyze decision-making in the European Union for months, complicate the process of admitting new members, and make it even more difficult to impose discipline on members' spending and inflation levels."

French President Jacques Chirac, who had urged voters to support the constitution in the binding referendum, made a brief televised appearance after the last polls closed to announce the result.

"France has expressed itself democratically," Chirac said. "It is your sovereign decision, and I take note."

The French government, led by Chirac and Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, supported it, while parts of both the right and left were opposed.

The right feared a loss of sovereignty. The left was worried that a more unified Europe would mean the spread of market-oriented policies and job losses.

The results now throw into question Chirac's political future, since he strongly supports efforts to further unify the EU's 25 member states.

Experts had said that a rejection by France, a European leader and key EU backer, could be the end of the constitution.

"There is no more constitution," said Philippe de Villiers, who heads the Mouvement Pour la France, an anti-European Union group.

Chirac said France would remain within the union, which it played a key role in founding, but warned voters that their repudiation would have repercussions.

"Make no mistake, France's decision inevitably creates a difficult context for the defence of our interests in Europe," he said

Supporters to push ahead

Despite the French results, the push to have the constitution ratified by other European Union countries will continue, Chirac and some other EU leaders said, sounding more confident than Blair.

"The referendum result is a blow for the constitutional process, but not the end of it," German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said.

"Of course, it is a serious problem," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said of France's decision.

But he added: "We cannot say that the treaty is dead."

Meanwhile, French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin held crisis talks with his ministers on Monday. He is widely expected to be fired following the referendum result.