France's post-referendum trauma

Patrice de Beer
30 May 2005

Whatever its failures, misgivings and contradictions, Europe probably didn’t deserve the political tsunami created by the French referendum which, on Sunday 29 May, rejected decisively the “treaty establishing a constitution for Europe”. But France’s gift to Europe, which has left in its wake a trail of disaster and pushed the constitution into a period of limbo, is not an ordinary vote. All the more reason, then, to understand its rationale, or lack of it – something that might be especially difficult to comprehend in the Anglo-Saxon world, except for those who think that (in politics as in rugby) the French are always unpredictable.

The referendum was not an ordinary vote for three reasons.

First, in the French political tradition, a referendum usually turns out to be a plebiscite where voters decide on the messenger rather than the message. Even more so on this occasion, when in a period of economic and social gloom French voters wanted above all to punish President Chirac.

Also in openDemocracy’s “Europe: after the constitution” debate, Krzysztof Bobinski, Gwyn Prins, Neal Ascherson and Frank Vibert draw lessons from the French and Dutch campaigns

France’s conservative, centre-right voters massively support the constitutional treaty, but they (and not only they) made Jacques Chirac the prime target of their anger: anger against his policies, broken promises, and lack of understanding for what the French want. But their anger had a secondary target: the political class in general, which also seems out of tune with public opinion and lacking bold solutions to reform France’s sclerotic socio-economic system. This is reflected in the defeat of the Socialist party leader, François Hollande, by a hotchpotch of far-left Trotskyites, communists and radicals.

The second reason why it is not an ordinary vote is that a majority of French voters were more interested in responding to the current social and economic malaise (characterised by endemic unemployment of more than 10%) and what they consider the devastating consequences of “ultra-liberalism” (the rallying flag of the dissatisfied) than on the immediate question of the treaty.

The extremes of the “no” camp had little in common besides shared opposition to the ultra-liberal bogeyman. Together, they played on French people’s fears: of losing one’s job to outsourcing, of the negative impact of globalisation, of the withdrawal of the social safety-net (the so-called service public à la française). All these combined into a fear of the unknown, of a foreign world that moves too fast and (for some) of foreigners themselves; some on the left even raised the spectre of the “Polish plumber” who was going to steal jobs from French ones.

The third reason is the very remoteness of Brussels institutions. For decades, French politicians have hardly bothered to explain or defend these, preferring instead to make the EU the scapegoat of anything that was going wrong. This alienation from EU institutions reinforces the sense of remoteness from Europe’s fundamental goals. Where is enlargement going to go – after Bulgaria and Romania, only until Turkey? But if farther, how far? And how much farther will deregulation go?

The French crisis is European

The fact that many French opponents of the constitutional treaty denounce the British input on its “ultraliberal” character may seem strange to those Anglo-Saxon or other Eurosceptics convinced that it is rather an over-regulating “French” text. But it is always easy to play on fears, and even more so when France’s “yes” camp fought such a defensive, rearguard battle against the “no” coalition of populists, demagogues and opportunists.

Also by Patrice de Beer in openDemocracy:

“France and the Security Council: poker diplomacy wins” (November 2002)

“Sorry, wrong target!” (February 2003)

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A fear-fuelled campaign might be expected from the far and extreme right, and especially from Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front, but it was more unexpected from the left. In the referendum campaign, a number of elements on the left – populism, national chauvinism, and navel-gazing from those who can’t understand why the rest of Europe is not convinced of the righteousness of its aims (and who even accused European social democracy and trade unionism of betrayal) – coalesced behind a leftist version of poujadisme.

Whatever happens now, it is unlikely that this strange coalition will be able either to rule France or influence Europe. Who, outside French borders, would care for a communist Europe (now that the Soviet Union is gone) or a Trotskyite one (assuming the different brands of Trotskyism, which were unable to campaign together, can agree?) Who, other than this unwieldy leftist French charabanc, would be interested in the “no” camp’s proposal for more social input into the constitution when the rest of Europe is far more centrist than France? Which Europeans will stand up and fight for a French “social model” that is already in deep crisis in its heartland?

Among the leading figures of this French “old left” – similar to Britain’s pre-Tony Blair “old Labour” – Laurent Fabius, the Socialist party’s deputy head, has played a particularly nefarious role. Until 2002, Fabius portrayed himself as the champion of a modernising “new left”, but he has now shifted his profile in order to foster his presidential ambitions for the next election due in 2007.

Fabius’s and the left’s achievement may be both to weaken the Socialist party decisively two years before this election, and to encourage the right to “punish” Jacques Chirac by turning to the standard-bearer of the new and more liberal right, Nicolas Sarkozy, a much more popular figure than Chirac and one likely to demolish his leftist opponents in television debates. Moreover, by saying that they reject the treaty as a “Trojan horse” for Bush-style ultra-liberalism, the left might actually have strengthened the United States president against a weakened European Union. In short, the arguments that triumphed on 29 May in France are likely to return to haunt those on the left who promoted them.

In the end, however, this crisis is also a crisis of confidence in institutions that have failed to reform; in an ideology that has lost its appeal among young people (for a long time the most pro-Europeans of all) and the working classes; and in politicians who have failed, or didn’t even try, to convince their peoples of the importance of the European endeavour. The French crisis belongs also to Europe.

Further Links
The EU Constitution (pdf)
Reader-friendly EU Constitution
A brief history of the EU
Yes Campaign
No Campaign
EU website
European Voice
E! Sharp

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