PARIS (Reuters) – Overseas voters cast their ballots on Saturday in France”s referendum on the European Union”s constitution, with the "No" camp holding its lead in the final opinion polls before a vote that has Europe on tenterhooks.
One survey on Friday showed a sharp drop in the size of the majority opposing the treaty, giving a ray of hope for the "Yes" camp, led by President Jacques Chirac. But another showed an increase in opposition to the charter.
Polling stations opened for voting in French Guiana, the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, and Saint-Pierre and Miquelon off Canada”s eastern coast. France”s overseas possessions have some 1.425 million registered voters. Mainland France votes on Sunday.
Supporters say rejection would kill the constitution and weaken France in Europe. Opponents say a "No" vote would force the EU to redraft the treaty and improve it. Rejection would weaken Chirac, although he has said he will not quit.
"Europe stands to be put back years by a rejection and all the existing fears in the population would only be exacerbated," Jean-Luc Dehaene, former Belgian prime minister and one of the key architects of the charter, told Belgian magazine Vacature.
EU Industry Commissioner Guenter Verheugen said a "No" vote would be serious but not mark the end of European integration.
"I do not think it would be appropriate to talk about throwing in the towel and the end of European integration," he told Austrian radio ORF.
The constitution is intended to make the EU work more smoothly following its enlargement last year and requires the backing of all 25 member states to go into force.
Supporters say the constitution will help make Europe and France stronger. Opponents say it enshrines economic policies that have failed to stop the loss of jobs to low-wage economies, including countries outside the European Union such as China.
Economists say concerns over the constitution have contributed to the euro”s recent weakness and the currency could fall further in the event of a "No" on Sunday. A rejection of the treaty could also cause jitters on financial markets.
Nine countries have approved the charter. None has rejected it so far although polls show a majority oppose the charter in France and the Netherlands, which holds a referendum on June 1.
One French poll published on Friday showed 52 percent of people who have decided how to vote will reject the treaty. Another put the "No" camp on 56 percent. But at least one fifth of voters are still undecided, recent polls show.
Another poll on Friday showed 57 percent of Dutch voters plan to vote "No." Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende urged voters not to reject the constitution, saying the reasons for many planned "No" votes had nothing to do with the treaty.
"Are you against the (Dutch) cabinet, then in 2007 you can head to the ballot box. The euro and Turkey also have nothing to do with the constitution," he told De Telegraaf newspaper.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder urged the French to back the treaty. He defended the need for a strong Europe in an article written for Le Figaro newspaper, adding: "The European constitution lays the foundations."
Voters as far away as French Polynesia in the Pacific Ocean were voting on the treaty on Saturday.
With the vote set for a close result, Chirac appealed last week to voters in the overseas territories to back the charter, which he said offered them support. (Additional reporting by Mark John in Brussels, Marcus Kabel in Vienna and Emma Thomasson in Amsterdam)