PARIS, April 15 (Xinhuanet) -- French President Jacques Chirac fired the opening salvo in a government pro-European Union (EU) constitution campaign Thursday night by urging his fellow citizens to vote "yes" in the May 29 referendum on the issue.
If France votes "no", European development will slow significantly and Europe's ambition to stand as a truly relevant world power will be endangered, Chirac warned during a televised two-hour discussion with 83 young people at the Elysee palace.
France will lose its clout in the union of which it is a proud founding member, the president stressed.
"If by chance France did not vote in favor, France would at least for a while cease to exist politically at the heart of Europe," he said in his concluding remarks.
The constitution, signed five months ago by EU leaders, introduces structural reforms to ensure smooth running of the enlarged bloc and strengthens its common foreign and security policy. It has to be ratified by all 25 member states to take effect.
So far the charter has been approved by Spain, Slovenia, Lithuania, Hungary and Italy. Greece is almost certain to give it the go-ahead in a parliamentary vote Friday.
But more difficult hurdles remain ahead as the constitution is put to the vote in Britain, the Netherlands and other more Euro-skeptical countries. Analysts say a negative answer from a major EU promoter like France would in effect scupper the hard-negotiated treaty.
FRENCH PUBLIC SKEPTICAL
Some of the young people invited to the TV show argued that the EU constitutional treaty is too complicated to be understood and questioned whether French endorsement of it will indeed help employment and improve living standards in France.
While trying his best to allay these worries through patient explanation and reasoning, Chirac highlighted the historical significance of a stronger Europe and appealed to his compatriots' national conscience to side with the state when it comes to the crucial question of the future of France and Europe as a whole.
Since March, more than a dozen opinion polls has put anti-EU charter sentiments in the lead, with nay-sayers fluctuating between 50 and 55 percent. Many French voters are disappointed by slow domestic economic growth of about two percent and the high jobless rate of 10 percent. They do not believe further European integration will solve the problems.
Some feel their interests threatened as the EU moves to lift business barriers among members states which may bring in fiercer labor competition and entail more drastic social reforms.
To complicate the matter are domestic politics prior to the 2007 presidential election and Turkey's bid to enter the EU, which a majority of French find hard to accept.
CHIRAC TRIES TO DISPEL FEARS
In his discussion with young people -- selected from "yes", "no" and undecided voters -- Chirac underscored the historical responsibility of France in building a unified Europe.
Chirac urged his compatriots to help build a "Europe that has the power to count in this world of tomorrow" and to counter the influence of other powers like the United States.
The charter will make Europe stronger by strengthening cooperation in security, foreign policy, economic growth, environment protection and the fight against terror, Chirac said.
France can best protect its interests within a strong EU, he stressed, adding that a weakened Europe means diminished power for France.
"We do not defend our interests alone. We can only defend them collectively...and if Europe is united," Chirac said. "And to be united, it has to be organized. Otherwise, we'll be swept away."
If France rejects the treaty "the first consequence would be that European construction stops," Chirac said.
He said the French should not concentrate only on the weaknesses and failures of the EU. They should also see its merits and successes.
The French "need not be ashamed of Europe" which as a bloc is the world's top economic power, is the biggest donor to poor countries, and whose people enjoy the longest life spans, Chirac said.
The president tried to separate issues like Turkey's effort to join the EU from the constitution issue and, in a clear appeal to left-leaning voters, the center-right Chirac said the constitutionsets a goal of full employment and would help enshrine a "humanistic" world view.
FRENCH POLITICIANS SUMMON SUPPORT
French politicians across the political spectrum have flocked out in support of the EU constitution, urging the public to approve the charter to avoid a crisis both at home and in the EU.
"A rejection would lead to a political earthquake in France," former European Commission president Jacques Delors said recently.
"It would also weaken France's international position. A 'no' would be a blow, both for Europe and for France," he warned.
French Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin said Europe would end up being driven by a "tricycle" rather than a "hot rod" if the French vote the treaty down.
"With a 'no', there won't be anything left in the garage... At best, there will be a tricycle," de Villepin said. "With a 'yes', there will be a hot rod... It has to be admitted that it's better to get around with that."
DREADFUL CONSEQUENCES FOR EU
Analysts say that if a smaller EU member vetoes the constitution, it might still survive after consultations between the EU and the member country. But a "no" verdict in a big country like France will virtually kill the new-born constitution.
It will also send the wrong signal to Euro-skeptics in countries like Britain, which holds a referendum next year, or in the Netherlands, where voters cast their ballots on June 1, they say.
France's rejection of the charter will surely weaken its say in European affairs and deal a blow to the European integration process, a situation that pro-EU member states like Germany, Spainand Belgium do not want to see.
As a passionate champion of common European foreign policy and a major driving force behind EU integration, France plays a role in European development that is difficult to replaced by others, analysts say.
A chief campaigner of a multi-polar world, France on many occasions has helped set the tone for EU development and its common position in international affairs.
If France backtracks at this historical juncture and chooses to place its own interests before those of the bigger Europe, France will lose the respect of fellow Europeans and the pro-EU sub-bloc within the EU will unravel, analysts say.
Pro-America countries will cash in on the collapse and dominate Europe's defense and foreign policy, at least in a couple of years,they say. Enditem