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Media criticizes Chirac EU appeal

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Jacques Chirac
European Union

PARIS, France -- French media has dismissed as unconvincing President Jacques Chirac's efforts to persuade his country to vote for the EU constitution in an upcoming referendum.

Meanwhile Friday, campaigners for a "no" vote accused Chirac of scaremongering by telling voters in a prime-time TV broadcast that France "could cease to exist politically" in the EU if they reject the charter on May 29.

The two-hour town hall-style meeting on Thursday evening marked the start of his push to promote the constitution, which is intended to reform EU decision-making after the admission of 10 new members last May.

However, the "no" campaign is leading in the opinion polls, and analysts suggested Chirac's debate with 83 carefully selected young people would not reverse the trend.

"In front of an audience in which those favoring the 'No' seemed to be in the majority, the head of state often struggled to make heard his pro-European plea during a muddled broadcast," the conservative Le Figaro wrote on its front page.

"Chirac: difficulty reassuring," LCI television said, while the left-leaning Liberation newspapers said Chirac appeared "strained, almost clenched-up" in the meeting.

Laurent Fabius, a former Socialist prime minister and leading "no" campaigner accused Chirac of trying to scare voters into backing the charter.

"I found Mr. Chirac, like the constitution, long and not very convincing," he told RTL radio.

"I was very struck to see Mr. Chirac saying on the one hand, 'don't be afraid', but his main argument was to try to create fear."

Chirac said the treaty could not be renegotiated if voters reject it but he would not resign over the charter, on which he has staked his personal prestige.

However, many analysts say a rejection, or even a narrow win, would deal a blow to his hopes of running for a third presidential term in 2007.

Opinion polls show the "no" campaign is ahead just six weeks before the referendum. The surveys point to discontent with high unemployment and with France's declining influence in Europe.

Education Minister Francois Fillon said Chirac had been convincing in the debate and that it was a tough examination.

"It was much harder for the president than a debate with journalists," Fillon told Reuters.

All 25 EU members must ratify the constitution -- by referendum or parliamentary vote -- for it to take effect.

Four nations -- Lithuania, Hungary, Slovenia and Italy -- have already ratified the constitution. A vote in Greece's parliament due to take place on Friday was delayed until Tuesday.

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