France and Europe: the democratic deficit exposed

Patrice de Beer
4 June 2006

One year ago, France and the Netherlands rejected by a large majority (54% of the French on 29 May, 61% of the Dutch on 1 June 2005) the treaty establishing a constitution for the European Union. Although opinion polls signalling the likely outcome meant that the results were not a complete surprise, the shock sent by the resounding "double no" throughout the European Union and its neighbours was real.

What made the rejection even more devastating was the fact that it came from two of the six founding nations, whose people had come to share (despite differences of size, culture, and aspirations) many similar feelings about the European Union: a sense of insecurity in the face of relentless economic and social liberalisation, a fear of immigration, and suspicion of an ever-widening union. One year on, it is time to try to assess the longer-term impact of the referenda, which together can be considered the most dramatic setback for the European dream since France's rejection of the European Defence Community in 1953.

Patrice de Beer is former London and Washington correspondent for Le Monde.

Also by Patrice de Beer in openDemocracy:

"France's incendiary crisis"
(September 2005)

"The Schröder-Merkel clash spills across the Rhine" (October 2005)

"France's political sclerosis"
(October 2005)

"Paris in flames: the limits of repression" (November 2005)

"France's enarchy"
(November 2005)

"Child's play at the CIA" (January 2006)

"France's immigration myths"
(February 2006)

"Law and disorder in France" (March 2006)

"Ukraine's inspiring boredom" (April 2006)

"France's crisis after crisis" (April 2006)

"The Ségolène phenomenon"
(May 2006)

The end of the affair

The most immediately striking thing to observe is that a year later, not much has changed. In France, both sides of the argument have stuck to their positions: the nay-sayers persist in their opposition to the constitution despite the fact that the so-called "plan B" their leaders promised has yet to materialise, while the yes-sayers feel confirmed by their awareness (shared in this respect by a majority of the public) that France's image and influence in Europe have been hard-hit by the referendum's failure.

Another referendum on the European constitution seems out of the question, if for no other reason that on current trends it would see the Dutch and the French repeat their rejection. Meanwhile, the existing twenty-five member-states have not yet found a compromise solution for Europe to get out of the quagmire. The prospect then is stasis, at least until after the elections in these countries, due in 2007.

Despite my Dutch-sounding name, I would not dare speak for people of that nationality; but, as far as the French are concerned, the failed referendum revealed three worrying flaws in the political relationship between France and Europe that the passing of a year has done nothing to diminish.

The first is that voters voted much more on the "messenger" (in this case Jacques Chirac and his government) than on the text itself; this is a long tradition in France, where referenda often translate into plebiscites. Even more, the "no" vote was also a vote of no confidence in French institutions, as well as in the political, bureaucratic and business elites who had put their massive weight behind advocacy of a "yes" and who thus found themselves disowned by their own people.

The French people's loss of confidence was a triple-whammy: in an ageing president without a policy and bogged down in never-ending scandals; in a political system unable to answer their fears and give them clear goals and hope; and in Brussels institutions which have forgotten that the European dream had to be fed with lofty ideals and improvements in citizens' daily lives rather than by bureaucratic management and the blind pursuit of an ever-widening union.

The second flaw is that French politicians have far too often used Europe as a domestic political football or as a scapegoat. Whatever has gone wrong has regularly been listed on Brussels' negative balance-sheet, forgetting that EU decisions are made by consensus among member-countries and that each government has its share of responsibility. Very seldom since the end of the Francois Mitterrand presidency in 1995 have French governments bothered to stress the positive side of European issues.

A sign of the lack of importance of Europe in French politics is that the minister for European affairs (currently Catherine Colonna) stands at the same level in the government hierarchy as the minister for veterans' affairs. Yet, as both "yes" and "no" voters acknowledge and regret, the year since 29 May 2005 has seen no real public debate initiated on the issue of France and Europe.

Among the articles in openDemocracy's "Europe: after the constitution" debate:

John Palmer, "After France: Europe's route from wreckage"
(31 May 2005)

Kirsty Hughes, "France's non, Holland's nee, Europe's crisis"
(1 June 2006)

Aurore Wanlin, "European democracy: where now?"
(2 June 2006)

Theo Veenkamp, "Dutch sign on Europe's wall"
(2 June 2006)

Simon Berlaymont, "What the European Union is"
(23 June 2006)

The third flaw, which is the consequence of the second, is that France's credibility in Europe is at its lowest. When its government utters proposals to try to end the present stalemate, usually without consulting other member-countries, the first reaction is: whose proposals are they? Are they Chirac's, who will retire from politics in less than a year? Do they emanate from the lame-duck prime minister Dominique de Villepin, or from his rightwing, rival candidate for the 2007 presidential election, Nicolas Sarkozy? And when a socialist candidate to the candidacy presents his or her plan – whether Laurent Fabius for the leftwing of the Parti Socialiste (PS) or Ségolène Royal for the moderate socialists – are they in tune with the still-to-be-decided party line? In any case, are the opposition's proposals only cannon-fodder for the elections, or a draft of the policy the next president of France will lead?

The end of "government by stealth"?

In these dire circumstances, one can understand that neither the European Union itself nor their own government have been able to assuage the French people's fears. True, some of these fears can be considered as irrational, as the difficult adaptation of an old society to a fast-changing (maybe too fast-changing) world; as such, they are regularly criticised in the Financial Times and the Economist. Yet, they are often shared, in different ways, in the other countries of the union. Perhaps, in this particular, French public opinion is more in tune with segments of these countries' citizenry than are their own governments.

This is why the disaster of May-June 2005 might mark the end of Europe's government by stealth, where decisions have long been taken without people's consent or even without bothering to inform the people properly. And the never-ending debate between deepening versus widening of the union is far from over, as many people now ask for a deepening of their social safety-net to be able to support the consequences of the widening of Europe and its greater opening to liberalism and globalisation.

In that sense, the 2004 enlargement to twenty-five and the opening of negotiations with Turkey in October 2005 have probably done as much harm to France's vision of Europe as the failures of the country's own politicians.

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