PARIS — French voters rejected a proposed European Union constitution Sunday, igniting a political crisis in the alliance and dealing a sharp blow to French President Jacques Chirac.
With nearly all ballots counted, the Interior Ministry reported that 55.5% of voters had rejected the constitution and 44.5% had approved it.
Although the defeat had been predicted in recent polls, the result was nonetheless remarkable. France, a founder of the European Union and its powerhouse for decades, may have scuttled an ambitious plan -- written by a former French president -- to make the alliance a stronger, more cohesive political entity.
Nine EU nations have approved the document, but it needs to be ratified by all 25 members to take effect. Although some prominent French and European leaders warned that France's rejection would doom the larger ratification process, others said that a second-chance vote might be possible.
The document would strengthen the powers of the EU presidency, its foreign affairs representative and its Parliament, and would streamline decision-making to ease the integration of the 10 nations who joined last year.
But many French voters expressed discontent with the EU, saying it had become an aloof, undemocratic bureaucracy that had grown too fast. They feared the new constitution would hurt French living standards by unleashing economic competition and immigration from poorer countries in Eastern Europe.
The defeat was a devastating repudiation for Chirac, now in his 10th year in office. As an elder statesman, he gambled by submitting the issue to voters instead of following the safer path of legislative approval, chosen by eight out of the nine other member states that have endorsed the document so far.
Some rivals demanded Sunday that Chirac resign, arguing that the dramatic result revealed a chasm between the government and an angry electorate.
The 72-year-old Chirac ignored the sniping. He gave a short speech promising to respond to the voters' concerns by quickly overhauling his government -- a statement seen by many as indication that he plans to replace embattled Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin.
"Make no mistake, France's decision inevitably creates a difficult context for the defense of our interests in Europe," Chirac said. He added that EU leaders would consider their options at a regularly scheduled meeting in Brussels next month.
Because the European Union is an arcane work-in-progress, an evolving alliance of nations with interconnected economies, predominantly open borders and often divergent political cultures, it is not completely clear what will happen next.
EU leaders insisted the ratification process would continue because 15 members had not yet voted.
"The ratification procedure must be pursued in other countries," Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg, which has not weighed in on the charter, said at a news conference Sunday night in Brussels.
Another referendum is to take place Wednesday in the Netherlands. Dutch resentment of immigration and vast subsidies to the EU have pushed the "no" camp well into the lead there, opinion polls show.
Some European officials have suggested France and any other countries that reject the proposed constitution could hold new votes or try to renegotiate disputed aspects of the text. But Juncker, who currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU, said Sunday it would be impossible to renegotiate the treaty.
In a joint statement, Juncker and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, who oversees the EU's day-to-day affairs, noted the gloomy repercussions of the French vote Sunday.
"We regret the choice coming from a member state that for 50 years has been one of the essential motors of the construction of our common future," the leaders' statement said.
They added that European leaders must analyze the reasons behind the apparent hostility to the EU, and that they should explain to their citizens that the proposed constitution is intended to respond to complaints about the bloc's ineffectiveness.
Among the reasons for drafting the new constitution was a desire to change rules that have become increasingly cumbersome for a 25-member union, such as requiring unanimous approval of many initiatives. The proposal also called for having an elected president for 2 1/2 years rather than the current revolving presidency that shifts to another country every six months.
The EU will continue to function based on existing treaties. But the defeat of the proposed constitution suddenly makes the leadership role of France -- along with Germany -- in the bloc uncertain.