FRANCE has been the foundation in the construction of post-war Europe. It set out the original vision and has been pulling the strings ever since.

Its rejection of the EU constitution, therefore, leaves a fault line at the core of the European Union.

Although widely predicted, the scale of the "non" vote is a devastating blow for the supporters of the constitution.

Of course, there were many ingredients in the mix: dissatisfaction with the French government; a perceived reduction of France's influence in the enlarged Union; and concerns over the possible future membership of Turkey to name just a few.

But despite straw-clutching suggestions by people such as EU commissioner Peter Mandelson that the French could still hold a fresh referendum on a revised constitution, it is hard to see how new life could be breathed into this particular dead duck.

Tony Blair does not have to make a hasty decision on whether a British referendum should go ahead, predictably calling for a period of reflection.

But with Holland expected to deliver a similarly emphatic "no" vote tomorrow, opposition to the constitution is likely to gather such momentum that there will be very little point in Britain bothering to ask its people for a decision.

It all leaves the future of the EU looking very uncertain indeed and, with Britain taking over the EU presidency from July 1, Tony Blair is facing a hugely difficult task to pick up the pieces of a shattering verdict by our French neighbours.