The big fear: the European constitution divides France

Johannes Willms
9 May 2005

In December 1825, a conspiracy of guard officers in St Petersburg attempted a coup whose treasonous aim, inspired by the officers’ sojourn in Paris in 1814-15, was to implement a liberal constitution in autocratic Russia. The coup failed and its ringleaders were hanged, while the simple soldiers who had dared celebrate the Konstituante were deported to Siberia. They had thought that Konstituante was the first name of their commander’s wife, but the misunderstanding did nothing to change their fate.

The consequences may not be so fatal, but France’s referendum on the European constitution on 29 May carries a faint echo of such misunderstanding. As the opinion polls fluctuate – from a clear majority for the approval camp, to an equally decisive lead for the “no” voters, and now a narrow margin in favour of “yes” again – it is striking that (according to the same polls) many of those who intend to vote “no” still hope for an overall positive outcome. To paraphrase that famous Gaul, Asterix: “These French are crazy!”

The country’s usually eloquent intellectuals have offered little guidance so far. At most, the pros and cons of the European constitution have elicited a tortured “yes” or a “no, but”, delivered with visible discomfort. Jorge Semprun displayed the height of such decided indecision in Le Nouvel Observateur when he justified his pro-constitution stance by comparing it to the attitude of Léon Blum, former leader of the 1936 people’s front government, towards the United States’s Marshall plan of 1947.

The lack of passion has led some to diagnose a straight decline of interest in Europe among French citizens. This argument sees the European Union with its twenty-five (and, with Bulgaria and Romania in 2007, twenty-seven) member-states as an incomprehensible Moloch, even a “black hole” that sucks up and destroys all energy. The conclusion is Hegelian: what isn’t understood anymore has ceased to exist. Yet ordinary citizens in the existing twenty-five states find they have no such luxury, for their everyday reality is influenced by the European Union to an ever-larger extent.

Such contradictory perceptions find their expression in a style of debate where everyone with a particular grievance in France can wield it as a weapon against the European constitution. Its common factor is fear.

The issue of Turkish membership of the European Union, with its prospect of ending forever French hopes of European leadership, has pushed many whose real concern is to prevent Turkey from becoming a full member of the EU into the “no” camp. Fear among 650,000 French farmers of losing their subsidies (amounting to 9 billion euros) under the notoriously profligate Common Agricultural Policy has helped make 70% of them oppose the constitution; civil servants and employees of France’s numerous state-run businesses fear for their privileges; artists (real or self-proclaimed) and those who feel called to defend France’s distinctive culture are moved to take a stand against perceived threats to it from a dissolving, borderless blancmange.

The fears rise to a global level where a great coalition of Gaullists and neo-Jacobites are struck with horror at the thought of France’s weight and voice being irreparably crushed between two forces: a Europe run by impotent, faceless Brussels bureaucrats with no sense of tradition, and pitiless neo-liberal globalisation. The trade unions in particular associate the European constitution with wage-dumping, with businesses outsourcing to poor countries, and with the slow destruction of the French welfare state.

The French may be crazy, but (pace Asterix again) many of them develop unexpected powers in face of death. The socialist Laurent Fabius, who as prime minister signed the Maastricht treaty (a cornerstone of the constitution) in 1992, espouses the “no” case in populist language, seeking to propel himself towards the 2007 presidential election; the political adventurer Jean-Pierre Chevènement, whose candidacy in the presidential elections of 2002 led to the elimination of socialist Lionel Jospin in the first round of voting, takes as always a statist, nationalist line; José Bové, farmer and anti-globalisation activist, professes to be elated at the prospect of voting “no”. The return to the political fray of Jospin himself, following his humiliating eclipse in the 2002 presidential race, suggests that the “yes” camp may, after all, still have some persuasive tunes in its repertoire.

The grande peur (big fear) now haunting France is a phenomenon familiar from its history. If the referendum were not so vital for France and Europe, it would be easy to laugh at the way the French are conjuring dangerous spectres from the constitutional document. The fault is shared. It should have been possible to elucidate the constitution, patiently and with humility, and to dissolve fear of the toxic catchword “liberalisation”. Even before then, it should have been possible to take heed of Napoleon’s maxim that a constitution should be “short and obscure”. The planned European constitution comprises 500 articles, 36 protocols, 2 amendments and 39 binding declarations: a tome of 298 pages, written in the mandarin prose of French lawyers (and of former French president, Giscard d’Estaing).

It may not be too late for the European constitution. But it is very late in the day for the French.

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