France's Vote Throws EU Into Political Uncertainty

BRUSSELS -- France's massive "no" to the European Union Constitution casts Europe into the most severe political crisis for more than a decade, opening a period of uncertainty, introspection and potential paralysis.

For the first time since 1954, when the French parliament rejected a treaty to establish a European Defense Community, a founder country that has been in the vanguard of every step in European integration, has voted against the next stage.

And it was not even close -- computer projections broadcast as soon as polls closed put the "no" at about 55 percent. "I think this means the treaty is dead, both legally and politically," said Daniel Keohane, an Irish analyst at the London-based Centre for European Reform.

"It means this project is bust," agreed Paul Magnette, director of the European Studies Institute at Brussels ULB University. "Everyone realizes there can't be a second referendum, nor a parliamentary approval." The crushing margin of defeat appeared to dash hopes in Brussels that the French might be persuaded to vote again later, especially since the turnout was so high.

Furthermore, Dutch voters now seem even more likely to reject the charter on Wednesday, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair looks unlikely to hold a referendum next year which would have been hard enough to win if the rest of Europe had voted "yes."

"What other country will risk a referendum on a treaty that two founder members have already rejected? How would they get the 'yes' vote out," Keohane said.

Yet the EU's political leaders appeared to be in denial.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and the president of the European Council, Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, were set to urge member states on Sunday to continue with ratification, aides said. "The ratification procedure must be pursued in other countries," Juncker told a news conference.

Leaders of the two main political groups in the European Parliament also united to declare that the show must go on. Their hope is that if more than 20 states approve the treaty, they will recreate the political momentum to bring the charter into force, although it is not clear how.

When Germany's upper house ratified the treaty last Friday, the EU executive rushed to proclaim that nine countries representing almost half the bloc's 454 million citizens had now approved the text, strengthening the case for carrying on. But only one, Spain, has approved it in a referendum.

The French "no" deals a body blow to the self-confidence of the EU after a string of successes from the introduction of the euro single currency to last year's "big bang" enlargement to take in 10 mainly ex-communist Eastern European states. It may call into question the authority of the European Commission, blamed by French treaty critics for undermining social protection, and make it a greatly weakened scapegoat.

Opponents of the EU admission of Turkey were quick to call for a halt.

"It will be difficult to talk about expansion," Slovenian Foreign Minister Dmitrij Rupel said in Ljubljana.