The French keep it in the family

Many in Britain feel smug about France's vote on the European constitution. If the French say "no" on 29 May, it will save us asking the dreaded question. If they say "yes", doesn't that strengthen a British instinct to say no when Tony Blair picks a date for us? After all, what the French want can't be what we need, can it? It is an attitude that reflects Blair's personal performance thus far on Europe: the ostrich with its head deep in the sand.

Britain occupies a ringside seat at France's desperately tight referendum battle. More than that, it has thrown an unwitting arm between the ropes. It is fortunate, therefore, that the French have been doing a lot of the hard thinking and talking on the constitution for us. Some of it is as mad as the stuff trotted out by obsessive Brussels-bashers in Britain: French naysayers claim the constitution could halt divorce and abortion throughout the EU; for the yeas, President Jacques Chirac declares the treaty to be "the daughter of 1789". Of the many reasons put forward for saying no, few have anything to do with the constitution. Frustration with Chirac and opposition to Turkey joining the EU head the list of extraneous matters.

Passions are unusually intense. The polls have remained neck and neck for weeks, the occasional boost for either side soon being redressed. The split results not from Euro-fatigue, but from a questioning of the direction the EU is taking. For the past 20 years, backing Europe has been a dogma, a faith, for left and right. In view of French regard for freethinking, this pensee unique (single-mindedness) has irritated even the majority who share it, but it has had the advantage of seeing off anti-European extremes represented by Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front, the communists and others. Now the single mind in the broad centre has cracked.

Leaving aside the many No voters who see the poll as a chance to whack Chirac, what lies behind French divisions is principally anguish over EU enlargement. Where does an expanding union leave France's political dominance? Given that enlargement limits political integration, which economic model will prevail? The constitution does not settle these questions - it doesn't presume to, which is its flexible force - but the readiest answers make No voters squirm. Chief squirmer is the former premier Laurent Fabius, a Socialist grandee and nominal pro-European who wants to be president of France. Fabius has split his party (and made a fool of himself) by making the constitution a scapegoat for France's social and economic afflictions.

Enter Britain, accompanied by Blair's go-go free-market approach. The Anglo-Saxon way makes light of social protections that France and Germany so value. Naysayers will lie on the rails in front of the oncoming locomotive to stop the EU's "social-market economy" from drifting into Blairism. The British way, seen from France, is the invasion of Polish plumbers to take French jobs under that hideous directive opening wide the market in services. This is the guts of the battle. Even the conservative Chirac thinks it too great a risk at home to embrace the "ultra-liberal" approach. The constitution does not force either country to adopt economic policies it doesn't like. France has unquestionably better public services than Britain; its productivity all round remains superior. But the French jobless rate, at 10 per cent and more, is twice as high. Furthermore, France's economic expansion, like Germany's, has lagged well behind for some years.

There is ammunition here not merely for the No camp, as Nicolas Sarkozy has found. The man most French people think will be their president in two years' time has grabbed the No argument by the tail. He makes support for the constitution a direct chance to embrace Blairism. "The best social model is the one which gives everyone a job. Alas, that is no longer ours, with three million out of work," he told a rally this month, thus widening his personal rift with Chirac. "It is ideological blindness to reject for our country what is happening elsewhere."

Whether the Sarkozy contortion works with restless voters is unclear. The Yes side hasn't hit on a grand theme beyond the evident, alas soporific, one that Europe as enshrined in the constitution has delivered peace and prosperity. The warmest argument it can offer is another Sarkozy special: "Europe? Well, it's family, isn't it? You don't walk out on the family."