LONDON — It is possible, even probable, that the French people will reject the European Union’s proposed new constitution in their referendum on May 31.

The reasons, if this occurs, will be a marvelously French mixture of contradictory sentiments and arguments, all adding up to considerable embarrassment for the French government, and for all governments that have signed the treaty embodying the new constitution in the hopes that their electorate would in due course approve their actions.

In the French case, this is looking increasingly unlikely. France’s unemployment exceeds 10 percent, business confidence is slumping, protest marches are taking place against labor law deregulation and salary restraints, and President Jacques Chirac’s popularity is falling.

French citizens seem to be falling right out of love with the idea of European integration, which was once seen as the way to perpetuate French influence and glory. Now, goes the argument, an enlarged union brings the threat of lower-cost labor and cheaper competition from the new members to the east — so-called social dumping — together with all kinds of cut-rate services from outside France that would undermine established interests.

And looming beyond all this is the prospect of further EU enlargement to include Turkey — a destiny that many in France view with utter horror. For them the admission, even if many years ahead, of a predominantly Muslim nation, which would be the second-largest member in the EU after Germany, would fatally dilute the original dream of a tightly united Western Europe led by France.

Criticism of the new constitution is also coming from both ends of the political spectrum. Many on the French left see it as far too colored by free-market principles and a dangerous kind of Anglo-Saxon liberalism that will weaken the famous European social model that rests on lavish welfare, high taxes and protection.

This is the opposite of the attitude of Euroskeptics just across the Channel in Britain. There it is the right, not the left, that is most critical, seeing the constitution as much too rigid and corporatist, and far too influenced by Gallic centralism and German regulatory instincts. So while the French see the constitution as some kind of British plot, the British see it as a French, or Franco-German, plot.

Overarching all these varied worries is still a more dominant feeling, namely that the constitution takes Europe too far along the road to the superstate pattern and constrains French identity, sovereignty and individualism too much.

Here, at this higher level, we arrive at attitudes that are common among constitution opponents everywhere, not just in Britain and France but probably throughout Europe. For what they show is that the architects of the constitution have built into their structure a fatal flaw. They have upset the delicate balance between efficiency and identity on which the whole European project has always rested.

People want economic efficiency, of course, delivered by free markets, zero tariffs and the obvious gains from operating together as a bigger market and a bigger bloc. But they also need identity — that is, to know who they are, who their rulers are, how their history has shaped them and how their treasured customs can be protected.

In an age of globalization they want all this more than ever. It is the nation-state — which can reconcile the two forces of efficient global performance and strong identity at home — that is best equipped to meet the ugly stresses of the 21st century and to reduce its bewildering complexities to human scale. Japan seems to be doing this, but can Europe?

Hitherto the EU has been skillfully shaped to cope with this rising conflict — promising competitive strength and efficiency through European unity combined with full respect for ancient cultures and distinct national identities.

The new constitution clearly tips the balance much too heavily toward the pan-European side. The erosion of national identities, acceptable and inevitable up to a point, is now being threatened too strongly. The remoteness and complexities of the EU suddenly seem to have grown too great. That is what the French seem to feel, that is what a large British majority evidently feel and that is what millions of Czechs, Poles, Balts and other Europeans also feel.

A French rejection of the constitution would be a welcome relief for Tony Blair if he is still British prime minister a year from now, for an almost certain referendum defeat in Britain might otherwise sink him. A “no” from France first pre-empts that embarrassment.

Some argue that a rejection by France would be more than a momentary setback — it would be a catastrophe for the whole EU. Well, it would certainly be a nasty shock for most of the European government elites who have signed up to the lengthy and unreadable constitution document. But for the peoples of Europe, it would make remarkably little difference. Existing rules could easily be modified to govern an enlarged union of 25 members.

Rejection of the constitution by France, or any other larger European power, will be a crisis only if governments declare it to be so and if there is no sensible fallback arrangement in place.

In their folly, the enthusiasts for the new constitution have up to now refused to contemplate alternatives, claiming that such things were unnecessary. Now it looks as though an alternative plan for Europe is indeed necessary and in need of urgent and detailed thought.

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