updated 4/15/2005 6:08:50 AM ET 2005-04-15T10:08:50

With his political authority at stake, President Jacques Chirac made a televised pitch to his countrymen to vote for Europe’s landmark constitution that he claims is France’s only route to power in the 21st century.

Facing 83 young adults — some of them "Euro-skeptics" — in a Town Hall-style meeting on Thursday, Chirac sought to counter momentum among opponents of the most far-reaching charter to unite EU member states.

Chirac, speaking to the French for the first time on the issue, cast a defensive figure. Repeated polls have shown most French plan to vote “no” in the May 29 national referendum on the charter, which would deal a near-fatal blow to the continent’s bold unification ambitions.

'We do not defend our interests alone'
Playing up France’s founding role in the EU, Chirac said the 25-member bloc needed to unite to better express its visions in the world and counterbalance U.S. might and rising powers like India and China.

“We do not defend our interests alone. We can only defend them collectively, and if Europe is united. And to be united, it has to be organized,” he said. “Otherwise, we’ll be swept away.”

A French rejection would all but destroy the charter, which European leaders agreed on five months ago after years of wrangling. It must be ratified by all EU member states to take effect.

A French “no” would cancel or delay key reforms such as the creation of EU president and foreign minister positions. A no vote also could depress the currently strong euro and raise doubts about Europe’s unity.

For France, a rejection could mean being blacklisted by its EU partners and turning away from the country’s central role in the half-century-long march toward greater European unity.

If the charter’s opponents win, “France, at least for a little while ... would stop existing politically inside this Europe,” Chirac said. “That’s what worries me.” He suggested that rich Brussels payouts to French farmers could be at risk if France balks at the charter.

A political gamble
Chirac gambled by calling the referendum: He could have simply called a vote in parliament, which his center-right party dominates. President Charles de Gaulle — his ideological forebear — resigned after the French rejected a 1968 referendum that he supported. While that was high in his mind, Chirac insisted he won’t resign if the “no” wins.

But if he fails to bring the French into line, Chirac could face considerable depletion of his standing among the French with just two years left in his current, second term.

European leaders drew up the constitution not only as a rulebook for unity, but as a symbol for a continent whose history is marked as much by the tragedy of war as the glories of its civilization.

But most French may not share such sweeping historical vision.

They’re concerned about whether closer integration will cost them jobs; whether farming regulations will destroy a way of life in the countryside; whether letting Turkey into the club, as is being discussed, could threaten their cultural identity.

No matter that the EU constitution doesn’t touch directly on such issues. As a symbol, the charter works both ways: Inspiring grand dreams of continental harmony, and embodying the fears ordinary people harbor about greater unity and change in general.

The irony is that the French appear to be sharpening their knives over a project conceived largely by French statesmen. Two of Europe’s best-known founding fathers were French. So is the main architect of the EU constitution, former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing.

For Chirac, the constitution is bound up in notions of power, prestige, and the glory of France.

While attending an EU summit in Brussels last month, he warned his countrymen that rejecting the charter would cost France “a large part of its authority, which it needs, in the Europe of tomorrow.”

The French president, who has a history of daring and sometimes costly political gambles, has much to lose. A rejection would deal a severe blow to any hopes he may be harboring of running for a third term in 2007.

Despite turmoil in France, the process of approval — whether by referendum or parliamentary vote — is continuing. The charter has already been approved by Spain, Slovenia, Lithuania, Hungary and Italy.

The constitution could still be revised and sent to voters again. But a “no” verdict here — or even a close vote — would further embolden Euro-skeptics in places like Britain, where polls show wide opposition, or in the Netherlands, where a referendum takes place on June 1.

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