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PARIS — The polls, for once, were right: Sunday the French rejected the draft European constitutional treaty by nearly 55 percent. This outcome was all the more significant because no less than 70 percent of eligible voters took part.

A major crisis has now opened — not so much in the European Union as on the French political stage, in the two main French political parties, especially the socialist one. Nobody clearly sees how the challenges will be solved. It’s enough in any case to see Sunday’s defeat as the most important event that has occurred in Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany.

The word “shock” dominated most front-page headlines of the French press. One commentator mentioned “tsunami”; another spoke of “Chirac’s twilight”; Le Monde’s editor referred to “stalemate.”

All this trouble could have easily been avoided if President Jacques Chirac had chosen the other option available to him and done as 10 EU-member states, including Italy and Germany, have already done: submitted the constitution treaty for ratification to the National Assembly. He would have secured majority approval of 80 percent or so.

Opinion polls at one time showed 64 percent popular support for the constitution. Even the leadership of the Socialist Party, now the main opposition force, backed it. Duped by popular appeal for his anti-American policy at the time of the Iraq war, Chirac failed to measure the growing impatience of many French with the rise in unemployment and the loss of jobs and markets to lower-wage labor in China, India and Eastern Europe. He is by far the main loser in the referendum. His chances of succeeding himself in June 2007 look extremely weak at this point.

Faced with a similarly negative vote, on the decentralization issue in April 1969, Charles de Gaulle had instantly resigned. Chirac made clear beforehand that he didn’t envision following that example. He sought to avoid linking the referendum on Europe to his own destiny. So what can he do now?

As generally expected, he quickly signaled that he would force out his prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, whose popularity is at its lowest yet. It’s not the first time a prime minister has been made the safety fuse. The name of a successor is not yet known. Chirac’s old rival Nicolas Sarkozy, former minister for home affairs and currently chairman of the rightist UMP party, is obviously a candidate. Sarkozy has already made clear that, if appointed, he would ask for a wide range of freedom of action.

The situation would be different if Chirac preferred the current home minister, the romantic Dominique de Villepin, who was previously in charge of foreign affairs, or his colleague, Defense Minister Michele Aliot-Marie, a dynamic lady very popular with the military. Chirac’s choice will show how much he still believes he can help restore his position at home, and whether he will concentrate on his favorite ground: diplomacy.

In any case, the referendum’s outcome is set to reduce his weight in that area, too — especially since his main EU partner, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, has seen his own stand weakened in the North Rhine-Westphalia state election. The results compelled Schroeder to call for federal elections within a few months. That will probably enable the pro-American Christian Democrats to come back, a pleasant prospect indeed for British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who will chair the EU Council from July 1. Thanks to the Sunday’s No vote and a similar outcome expected in the Netherlands and Poland, Blair doesn’t have to organize a constitutional referendum, which he has every chance of losing.

Those who voted No tend to be very critical of the United States and its “liberalism.” Surely they realize that their victory was entirely negative. For many it was a victory over Chirac, European consolidation and so forth. But you can’t build a coherent political force on a coalition of Trotskyites, Communists, nationalists and the extreme-left.

If it wants to win the presidency in 2007, the left must find a way to restore cooperation between Yes and No supporters in the referendum. Former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius, who advocated No despite the official line of the Socialist Party, hopes to be that man, although first secretary Francois Hollande has made clear that he doesn’t intend to give up his job.

Needless to say, these internal debates don’t contribute a whit to restoring the tarnished image of the political class. It’s not an exaggeration to say that a crisis of democracy exists in France.

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