French ‘Non’ Threatens European Unity

Socialist party leader Francois Hollande spoke earlier this month in Montlucon, France, at a meeting for those promoting the "No" vote in the upcoming 29 May French referendum on the European constitution. (Photo: Thierry Zoccolan / AFP-Getty Images)

France, one of founding members of the European Union, seems poised to reject Europe’s landmark constitution in a referendum on May 29.

“The No is taking root,” shouted a recent headline in the daily Le Parisien. Fifteen opinion polls have confirmed the trend with 51 percent to 55 percent of likely voters opposed to the European Union constitutional treaty.

“This is no longer an ill-tempered ‘no.’ It is a ‘no’ based on conviction,” said Pierre Giacometti, director of the Ipsos institute that carried out one of the polls.

Negotiated under the chairmanship of former French president Valery Giscard d’Estaing, the constitution is an ambitious step towards unification. It is meant to simplify decision-making and to forge a more coherent joint foreign policy. Current procedures, which sometimes require the unanimity of its members, are becoming unwieldy now that the Union has 25 members.

But if the French fail to ratify the constitution, the historic text will become meaningless.

France’s mainstream political parties, the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (U.M.P.) and the opposition Socialist Party (P.S.), are both officially in favor of the new constitution. France’s voters were also favorable to the constitutional treaty, by a margin of almost two to one, until just a month ago.

Since then, if the polls are accurate, they have experienced a change of heart.

“Their answer is no!” wrote Robert Schneider in the weekly Nouvel Observateur (April 14). “No to unemployment, to poverty and shocking inequality, to the government leaders, to the powerful people at the top. No to [President] Chirac, [Prime Minister] Raffarin, to the bosses of multinational companies with their colossal salaries, to the technocrats in Brussels who make decisions without consulting the will of the people.”

He could have added “no to the Turkish accession to full E.U. membership” — since most French people bitterly oppose it.

Socialist leader Francois Hollande described the mass of negative sentiment as the “foggy no.”

“The French don’t want to say no to the constitution,” claimed Jean-Louis Bourlanges, member of the European Parliament for the Union of French Democracy party (U.D.F.). “They just want to say merde.”

Socialists Break Rank

Radical unionists, Communists, Trotskyists and the extremist National Front — represented by Le Pen — are, for different reasons, militantly opposed to the constitution.

But if the constitution is rejected, it will be because of a center-left split in the Socialist party.

The head of the Socialist party, Francois Hollande, has staked everything — including his future presidential hopes — on a “yes” vote. He is now engaged in a brutal struggle with the powerful “no” faction that sees the referendum as a chance to deal a blow against the centre-right president, Jacques Chirac.

“One of the main challenges faced by the ‘yes’ supporters, above all those in the Socialist Party,” said Libération(March 20), “is to convince people that there are other ways of voting against Chirac.”

There are parallels here to the fracture in the Socialist party in the spring of 2002 that opened the electoral door to the proto-fascist National Front party.

Far-left Socialists refused to vote for their party’s presidential nominee, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, forcing him out of the race. The result was a previously unthinkable disgrace for France: a run-off election between the National Front’s Jean-Marie Le Pen and President Chirac.

Signs of Panic

In a sign of panic, the French government tried in late March to buy a “yes” vote in the referendum on the European Union constitution by offering inflation-linked wage increases to roughly five million public employees.

However, the official opening of the government’s campaign for a “yes” vote was an April 14 televised debate in which Jacques Chirac fielded questions from 83 young people.

The French press derided the format of the two-hour television program: it was stage-managed by Chirac’s daughter and hosted by talk-show celebrities rather than political journalists (with the exception of TF1’s Patrick Poivre d’Arvor).

The event also led to unflattering comparisons between Chirac and the late Francois Mitterrand. In 1992, the ailing Socialist President Mitterrand didn’t hesitate to debate directly against the leader of the conservative “no” campaign just weeks before the referendum over the controversial Maastricht treaty. He turned the tide, winning a narrow victory for the treaty that created European Union citizenship and a single European currency.

The televised pitch by Jacques Chirac was his first attempt to speak directly to the French about the referendum. “Don’t be afraid!” Chirac, who is 72, told his youthful audience repeatedly during the evening. “Let’s not be afraid of this Europe that is your future. …”

By rejecting the constitution, “France, at least for a little while ... would stop existing politically inside this Europe,” he told them.

Chirac said he would not, however, follow De Gaulle’s example and resign if the “no” wins. De Gaulle stepped down after voters rejected a 1968 referendum on changes in French regional government.

Judging by the poll results, Chirac’s appeal has not slowed the momentum of the “no” campaign one bit.

“People expected Jacques Chirac to be the supreme savior of the ‘yes’ campaign, the Duce of the constitutional treaty, the deus ex machina of the coming referendum. He blew it. He totally blew it,” wrote Christian Digne in the daily La Marseillaise (April 18).

The conservative daily Le Figaro (April 18) called Chirac’s performance “second rate,” and a “dialogue of the deaf.”

“Will this hypocrisy never cease”? asked Eric Boucher in a Le Monde (18 April) editorial. He ridiculed Chirac’s description of Europe as a “rampart against ultraliberal globalization.” Chirac is “promulgating the idea that France is in need of protection against evil developments in the outside world,” he wrote, adding:

“Liberalism and federalism, the world and Europe — Jacques Chirac has no clear ideas. Nor does France. That is the whole problem of the one and the other. There is no getting around it.”

Chirac and other government leaders “secretly hoped” according to Boucher “that the E.U. will force France to undertake reforms that are necessary but unpopular.”

But the strategy has backfired. Because of the “cowardly hypocrisy” of Chirac and his government he concluded, “the French who loved Europe yesterday suspect it today. Once a source of hope, it has become a menace.”