Europe

Chirac Fails to Quell the Unease of the French Electorate

French President Jacques Chirac, in a bid to jumpstart the stumbling “yes” campaign for the European constitution, answered questions by journalist Patrick Poivre d’Arvor (right) during a live television show earlier this month in Paris. (Photo: Patrick Kovarik / AFP-Getty Images)

At the Elysee palace, on Thursday, April 14, French president Jacques Chirac appeared before an audience of 83 young persons selected by the Sofres polling agency on French television channel TF1 on prime time, faced with the burden of promoting a French "Yes" at the upcoming May 29 referendum on the European constitution.

The European Constitution, Chirac and Rebel Youth

The audience, comprised of young persons aged 18-30, together with moderators Marc-Olivier Fogiel (France 3), Jean-Luc Delarue (France 2), Emmanuel Chain (M6), and Patrick Poivre d’Arvor (TF1), was rather raucous and challenging to the president, who confessed himself chagrined by the “pessimism” of the young, which he did not understand.

Nevertheless, Chirac tried to allay the fears of an audience apparently largely comprised of opponents of the European constitution. More than once echoing the late John Paul II’s “be not afraid,” he set himself up as a paladin of an anti-globalist Europe against “Anglo-Saxon ultraliberalism” and “an unbridled globalization,” and argued that, in order to confront “the United States, and other emerging economic blocs, like China, India, Brazil and South America, Russia,” the European Union must arm itself with an effective set of rules. France cannot individually confront these challenges: it is up to a united, strong and organized Europe. “In unity lies strength,” he said. “Only our political power at the heart of the European Union today allows us to defend our interests: should we vote ‘no,’ tomorrow we will no longer have any power,” he insisted.

The debate raged around outsourcing of jobs threatened by the Bolkestein directive, overhaul of education now in force under the Fillon Bill, and the admission of Turkey into the European Union.

The Bolkestein Directive

“I am not a werewolf. My name is pronounced ‘Bolkesten.’ That does not rhyme with Frankenstein, nor with Einstein.”
Frits Bolkestein, on French television, regarding the dubbing of the legislation by its critics “The Frankenstein Directive.”

The Bolkestein directive, named after Dutch internal market commissioner Frits Bolkestein, who had the electricity to his second home in France cut by French unionized electrical workers last week, had proposed the deregulation of the services sector throughout the European Union on a par with the liberalization of goods and mobility of persons already in force.

According to its critics, though, this directive would pit low-wage, unprotected workers from the recently admitted Eastern European countries against higher-paid, unionized Western European workers and amount to “social and ecological dumping.” At the heart of the row is the “country of origin principle,” whereby workers from say Bulgaria going to work in say Germany would be governed by the labor laws of Bulgaria, which critics regard as absurd, impracticable and unfair. As Joaquin Estefania wrote in Spain’s daily El Pais, “Kick-starting the European economy by demolishing the obstacles that currently exist against a company belonging to one country setting up shop in another without bureaucratic discrimination is one thing; to allow it to do so under the environmental and labor legislation of the country of origin is another.” He added that the brouhaha over the directive was because no longer are the losers in the relocation of jobs the unskilled, but increasingly skilled workers and those in the liberal professions whose jobs may be up for grabs.

It was president Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder who had led the campaign to defend Europe’s “social model” and to revise the directive, far-reaching changes to which were introduced back on Tuesday, March 22, at an EU summit in Brussels, which were widely backed by the European Parliament, and amendments to which will be taken up again in July.

Those in favor of the Bolkestein directive, such as Sabine Herold, 24, vice-president of the liberal NGO Liberte Cherie (Cherished Freedom), argued recently (in an interview for Euroactiv.com) that only 7 percent of the French labor force is unionized, essential local services would not be affected, and France, with a public deficit of €3 trillion, needs to adhere to the fiscal belt-tightening inherent in the Stability and Growth Pact (adopted 1997), lest it mortgage future generations and lest it live at the expense of more virtuous European partners who would have to shoulder that public deficit which, with the Euro, carries higher interest rates than those in the United States.

No Child Left Behind?

Another bone of contention has been the education reform bill proposed by French education minister François Fillon and approved by the French parliament back in late March, which meets with the approval of 71 percent of the French public. In substance, it is a modest reform bill, requiring competence in two foreign languages at the high school level and an overhaul of declining standards (which today result in 150,000 18-year-olds dropping out of high school) through, for instance, the assignment of paid teachers’ assistants to help failing students and the formation of new teachers.

French high school student unions are embarking on their third month of nationwide strikes and occupations of schools in protest against the Fillon bill, which they claim is elitist, underfunded, undermines equality of opportunity, does not take into account declining staff levels, deterioration of educational premises, and does not address police violation of students’ rights in the wake of police raids in search of drugs and weapons.

As for the entry of Turkey into the European Union, Chirac told his audience that had nothing to do with the upcoming referendum, and underlined “their values, lifestyles and functioning are incompatible with ours.”

He also assured his audience that he would not quit the government in the event of a “no” vote, bemoaning the fact that since 1969, when General De Gaulle resigned following the defeat of his referendum on regionalization and reform of the French Senate, the French people have been wont to view referenda as though they were plebiscites or votes of confidence or lack thereof by the people in their leaders.

Fallout

Two days after the televised, two-hour long debate, a poll in Le Parisien on Saturday reported a 1 percent increase in the number of those against the European constitution or 56 percent.

According to many, Chirac failed to quell the unease of the French electorate, his televised debate having failed to address the concerns of what appeared to be a fairly representative audience in that he really did not address their concerns directly, howsoever much he may be in tune with their misgivings in practice.

Still others pointed to the fact the audience itself seemed to be misinformed about all the developments surrounding the European constitution, confusing the Bolkestein directive, Turkey’s entry into the European Union, the outsourcing of jobs (in sharp rise), Chirac’s permanence as the head of state with the referendum on May 29.

Yet a French vote against the European constitution would, according to many, bring about the undoing of the European project.

In any case, those in president Chirac’s entourage ask, “Who said the campaign [in favor of the referendum] stops with that broadcast?”

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