There was one big surprise in Jacques Chirac’s Bastille Day press conference:

Chirac ended months of speculation and pledged to hold a referendum in the second half of 2005 on ratifying the European Union’s first constitution. The decision – the surprise of Chirac’s hour-long interview – means voters, and not the French parliament, will decide whether France should adhere to the 25-country bloc’s first constitution.

Polls have shown that the French want a referendum, but Chirac hesitated, fearing another rejection at the polls: his conservatives were trounced in recent European and regional elections.

Of course, in EU politics, referenda don’t mean very much. Should a measure fail to pass, it’s easy enough to keep holding votes until it does pass.

NOTE: The referendum idea surely shows weakness in Chirac’s government — just last April, a “senior French minister” sneered at Tony Blair’s promise to hold one, too.