A new opinion poll has shown a majority of French voters are opposed to the EU constitution for the first time.
According to the survey in the Le Parisien daily, 51 percent of French voters who have decided how they will vote in the May 29 referendum on the treaty are planning to reject it, with 49 percent saying yes.
Fifty-three percent, however, say they are tempted either to abstain or to spoil their ballot paper.
Most EU-watchers agree that rejection in France would spell the end of the treaty, plunging Europe into institutional paralysis and setting the European project back by 15 years.
The poll has confirmed a steady and apparently accelerating decline in French support for the constitution, which last September was at 69 percent. The polling agency, CSA, said the "yes" camp had lost more than 14 percent since its last survey less than a month ago.
Plainly shaken, leading figures from Chirac's ruling center-right UMP party and the opposition Socialists tried to put a brave face on the poll.
"It is a real electric shock," the labor relations minister, Gerard Larcher, admitted on French radio. "But I don't know of any difficulty that a man of spirit cannot eventually transform into a victory."
Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin insisted he was "preoccupied" but "not saddened" by the poll result.
"This referendum needs uncertainty, so that every French voter realizes he has a historic role to play," Raffarin said. "It will help create debate, and the `yes' needs debate. The `yes' needs the `no' in order to win."
UMP leader Nicolas Sarkozy, Chirac's would-be successor on the right, said a "no" vote would mean "either the paralysis of Europe, or the isolation of France."
While the far-right National Front and a handful of small sovereignty parties oppose the constitution, Friday's poll showed that support for the treaty had dropped most dramatically among left-wing voters.
Compared with last month's CSA survey, Socialist backing for a "yes" vote had slumped 27 points to just 41 percent.
In part, analysts say, this reflects growing dissatisfaction with the Socialist party's vain attempt to argue that a "yes" vote for the EU constitution does not automatically imply approval of the conservative government's policies.