Voters in France faced a historic choice yesterday as they cast ballots in a referendum on the EU's first constitution, a charter designed to pull nations together -- but now the source of a bitter divide threatening its passage.
Nearly 42 million people were eligible to vote in the pivotal referendum on the charter, which polls suggest the French will reject. The constitution must be ratified by all 25 EU member states before it can take effect next year, so a French "no" could kill it.
The "yes" camp hoped for a surprise, plausible if the legions of undecided voters come out in favor of the constitution or simply vote.
"Everything is possible," read the headline in the daily Le Parisien.
The participation rate was 25 percent by noon yesterday -- 4.6 percent higher than that recorded during the same timeframe in the last French referendum on Europe in 1992, the Interior Ministry said.
The 55,000 polling stations opened at 8am and were to close at 8pm, except in Paris and Lyon, huge population centers where voting was to end at 10pm. The first exit poll results were expected at that time.
About 1.5 million voters in France's overseas territories from the Caribbean to Polynesia cast ballots on Saturday, with results to remain under wraps until all voting concluded.
Voters carrying market baskets or dressed for church trickled into polling stations near the site where the Bastille prison once stood in central Paris.
Across the Seine River, a carpet of flyers promoting the "yes" vote covered the street and sidewalks in the Left Bank neighborhood of Montparnasse -- a testimony to the intense nature of the debate that gripped France.
"If you look at every sentence, every turn of phrase, practically every article has a mention of [financial] markets," said graphic designer Anne-Marie Latremoliere, 57, after casting a "no" ballot at a polling station near the Bastille. "We want Europe to be a beautiful place and this is certainly not it."
Her fear that the constitution will promote voracious capitalism on the continent at the expense of social protections is typical among "no" supporters.
Arnaud Senlis, 27, carrying his two-year-old son on his shoulders, was equally adamant about his "yes" vote.
"I never thought twice about it," he said, complaining that the intense debate "seemed more about national politics and politicians' personal ambitions than a real debate about Europe's future."
The key to victory for the "yes" camp could lie in the hands of those who make up their minds at the last minute -- more than 20 percent of the electorate, according to polls.
Katia Volman, a 22-year-old student, was among them, but she cast a blank ballot, saying the issues were too complicated to fully digest.
"I had so many reasons to vote `yes' or `no' so I left it blank and that way I won't regret my decision two days later," she said.
Down to the last minute, however, the debate over the landmark constitution stirred up scenes of extraordinary passion, even by Gallic standards.
A professor of European law, Francois Sarrazin, 57, voted "oui" and then went on a rampage, ripping down all of the "non" posters he could find, scraping them from the walls with his fingernails.
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