updated 5/29/2005 7:35:11 PM ET 2005-05-29T23:35:11

With their defiant “Non!” to the European Union’s proposed constitution, French voters stunned President Jacques Chirac and the continent’s political elite and projected their fears about issues ranging from stagnant economies to national identity.

With the vote, France became the first nation to repudiate a treaty that aims to strengthen the EU and give it a president and foreign minister. Whether the constitution is dead remains to be seen, and depends in part on what happens Wednesday when Dutch voters have their say.

The charter needs approval from all 25 member states to take effect, leading some to see repeat votes on a perhaps altered treaty or even an entirely new constitution. The most pessimistic warn the entire European project could suffer decline.

Chirac and his colleagues failed to convince voters that Europe is headed in the right direction and working in their interests. Their assurances that the treaty would strengthen Europe and France without sacrificing the French way of life fell on deaf ears.

Chirac promised the constitution would help preserve France’s cherished social protections. But many voters suspected exactly the opposite: that it would be used by faceless technocrats in Brussels as a vehicle for bringing in the American free-market model.

Disconnect between voters, elites
The result suggests a stunning disconnect between ordinary people and France’s political, business, and media establishment, where support for the treaty was strong.

France’s rejection is likely to strengthen the resolve of the Netherlands’ “no” camp, which already leads in polls. A double blow could prove fatal for the constitution, which was designed as the next big step in the historic project of bringing Europeans together.

With 448 clauses, additional protocols, annexes and its suffocating legalese, the treaty was always going to be a hard sell. With one in 10 French workers unemployed, the electorate was in rebellious mood.

Chirac’s opponents sensed a chance to humiliate the French leader ahead of presidential elections in 2007. The French president invested huge personal prestige in campaigning for a “yes” — and his failure could rule out his prospects of running for a third term.

Both the “yes” and “no” camps played on people’s fears, warning of catastrophe if the other side won.

The debate morphed into a raucous and occasionally xenophobic venting of French spleen that at times seemed to have little to do with the constitution itself.

Treaty opponents built an ad hoc coalition of the disgruntled by bashing the United States, Turks, immigration in general, Eurocrats and free-market capitalism. They tapped into concerns that jobs will be lost to 10 countries that joined the European Union last year, most of them in Eastern Europe where labor is cheaper.

They argued that the treaty would have to be renegotiated and improved if France rejects it. Chirac and EU leaders say that is impossible. Polls showed many voters didn’t believe them.

The rejection reinvigorates the French far-right and far-left that campaigned for “no.”

It could muddy predominantly Muslim Turkey’s hopes of EU membership — talks begin in October — because welcoming 70 million Turks looks even more difficult following the French vote.

Because the constitution needs all EU members to say “yes” to go into force as planned on Nov. 1, 2006, the French risk being accused of having turned their back on nine countries that have already approved it.

What went wrong?
If somehow salvaged, the treaty would provide the EU with its first foreign minister — no small advance for a bloc that proved incapable of working in-step over the Iraq war or preventing Balkan conflicts that left 265,000 dead or missing on its doorstep in the 1990s.

It is also designed to make collective decision-making and action easier. With EU powers France and Germany hobbled by double-digit unemployment and sputtering economies, “yes” supporters had hoped the charter would give the bloc a badly needed shot in the arm.

Some will see a French “no” as selfish, putting their concerns — and mood — before the common European good. Why, people in Warsaw, Prague or Bologna might ask, should we play ball if France, an EU founder, won’t?

The “no” will likely provoke a prolonged bout of introspection as European leaders try to figure out what went wrong and whether the treaty can be salvaged, either in full or in part. An inward-looking Europe could lose interest in combatting poverty or wars in Africa, the erosion of democracy in Russia or working with the United States against the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

Some suggest France could be made to vote again. But that seems unlikely in the remainder of Chirac’s current term. Until now, only Gen. Charles de Gaulle had lost a referendum since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958. Unlike the testy general, Chirac has said he won’t resign.

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