One of the charming things about the French is the way they always seem to oppose their government, regardless of its political colour. Although sitting presidents are treated with some respect and usually re-elected, the voters take every other opportunity to give their politicians a good kick in the derrière.

Now another opportunity presents itself with Sunday’s referendum on ratification of the new constitution for the European Union. Opinion polls last year showed the constitution enjoying as much as 64% support, but apart from a brief rally a month ago, it has been downhill since then. For the last few weeks the polls have consistently given the “no” vote a clear lead.

As today’s Australian reports, the “yes” camp is now expecting defeat, and putting its energy into recriminations. The government’s message was already mixed: President Jacques Chirac has argued that a “yes” is necessary to preserve the French social model, while his rival, Gaullist Party president Nicolas Sarkozy, bluntly told voters that the French model isn’t working and European integration would offer a way to change it. “The best social model is that which gives everyone a job, and ours no longer does that.”

The opposition Socialists are no more united: officially they are backing the constitution, since an internal plebiscite last year gave a strong majority for “yes”. But dissidents have continued to support the “no” campaign, and a majority of Socialist voters are expected to follow them.

The “no” coalition is a union of extremes: the Communist Party, the Greens, a few Trotskyist parties, some right-wing nationalists, and Jean-Marie Le Pen’s far-right National Front. It’s an odd but not unfamiliar alignment, broadly corresponding to the opponents of so- called “economic rationalism” in countries like Australia. Paradoxically enough, our “economic rationalists” tend to also be passionately opposed to the E.U.

If the constitution goes down, it will doom the referendum three days later in the Netherlands. But no-one knows what will happen then. E.U. advocates insist “there is no plan B”, but it seems obvious the constitution will have to be re-thought – probably not be a bad thing. Better do so now than wait for it to be pole-axed by the British eurosceptics in the referendum that Tony Blair has promised – but which a French “no” might allow him to avoid.