France Turns Against Europe

French newspapers show the results of the May 29 referendum

French newspapers show the results of the May 29 referendum on the European Union's first ever constitution the day after French voters rejected it. (Photo: Gabriel Bouys / AFP-Getty Images)

The dream of a United Europe has shattered in France, the country where it was born.

The French have turned a referendum on the European constitution into a protest against unemployment, globalization, market liberalization, and Turkey joining the European Union.

It is also a massive repudiation of French President Jacques Chirac.

“We all have a good reason to vote no,” said the far right Eurosceptic Philippe de Villiers when asked to explain why French Trotskyists, anarchists, Communists and members of the racist National Front all marked the same box on their referendum ballot. They were joined by a majority of Greens and Socialists.

With all of the votes counted last Sunday, Dominique de Villepin, France’s interior minister put the no vote at 54.87 percent. The turnout was around 70 percent.

“Out of nationalism, xenophobia, dogmatism or nostalgia, they wanted to get rid of this Europe that … imposes change,” suggested Jean-Marie Colombani in a Le Monde editorial (May 30).

Fifty-four years ago, France was a founding member of the six-country precursor to the current European Union.

Today, France is turning its back on the Union in the hour of its greatest triumph — the reunification of all Europe, east and west. French fears of losing jobs to Eastern Europe contributed to their decision.

Pollsters said that voters fear the constitution would not only worsen unemployment in France — already over 10 percent — but endanger its social safety net as well. Workers and farmers voted overwhelmingly against it. Younger people mostly said no.

Opposing Interpretations

The complexity of the constitution added to the bewilderment and suspicion of the French electorate. Author Valéry Giscard d’Estaing admitted to Time magazine that the text “is better for insomnia than most sleeping pills sold in pharmacies.”

In an interview with Les Echos (May 26), D’Estaing complained that European leaders did not help the document with their overall attitudes to Europe. “When we meet difficulties they often blame Europe. So how can we be surprised then that the French have a bad idea of Europe?” he said.

The document that would unite 25 countries under one flag contains 448 articles so riddled with ambiguity that France and Britain are rejecting it for opposite reasons.

Chirac sees the constitution as “largely inspired by France and French values,” and a defense against a purely economic, free-market version of Europe.

But many French have opposed it for being “ultraliberal” in the economic sense and an invitation to savage “Anglo-Saxon” or Thatcherite competition. British Eurosceptics, by contrast, believe the exact opposite: That it does not do nearly enough to liberalize markets or increase competition.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, has focused on the issue of sovereignty. According to him, the constitution will place France “under the American protectorate of NATO.”

The democratic shortcomings of the proposed constitution begin with the preamble. While the United States Constitution uses the phrase “We the People of the United States,” the European constitution invokes” His Majesty, the king of the Belgians.” The king and other European heads of state have “agreed on the following dispositions,” etc.

“Unity [in Europe] cannot be imposed in vacuo by the treaty-making of some superannuated French aristocrat,” scoffed Boris Johnson, M.P. for Henley-on-Thames and editor of the Spectator.

Turning Back the Clock

At times during the debate between the yes and no camps, the French seemed to be turning back the clock, dusting off the Gaullist, statist and Communist slogans of previous decades. Anti-globalization movements such as Attac successfully revived the anti-capitalist arguments rejected by François Mitterrand in 1983.

Hence the objections by left-wing no campaigners to the constitution’s articles on “free and fair competition” and “free movement of goods, people and capital” — the very basis on which the European Union has been built for the past 47 years.

“No one has dared tell the French left that we live in a world of market forces,” commented Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the Green co-leader in the European Parliament.

Libération editor Serge July, like most of the mainstream French press, was shocked by the seeming convergence of far left and extreme right. “It was partly a referendum on enlargement, in which foreigners, from the ... Turk to the unfortunate Polish plumber, were asked to stay at home. This type of xenophobia is common currency for Jean-Marie le Pen, but it was unthinkable that the left also made it part of their campaign territory ... ” (May 30).

Some critics saw in the no vote a peculiarly French mixture of obstreperousness and narcissism. Jean-Marie Gautier editorialized in Le Havre Presse (May 28) that France is “a nation of navel-gazers who only gradually became interested in Europe …They are grumpy, difficult and prone to answer in the negative. It makes you think of the Woody Allen line: ‘The answer is no but what was the question?’”

Stalling Franco-German Engine

The failure of the referendum calls into question the French-German partnership at the heart of the European Union. Europe’s two biggest economies are now underperforming and their political leaders are on the defensive.

“Bush is the one who would rejoice at the failure of the European constitution, for it would allow Europe to develop a common foreign and security policy with enough soft power to bolster opposition to the neoconservative view of global order, also within the United States,” wrote the German philosopher Juergen Habermas (Nouvel Observateur, May 7, 2005).

In an open letter to French voters, German intellectuals, artists and academics had warned the French public that voting “No” to the constitution would mean betraying progress and abandoning the ideals of the Enlightenment (Le Monde, May 2):

“Europe is the answer to your and our fears. Europe demands courage. Without courage, there is no survival. Not for France. Not for Germany. Not for Poland … We owe this to the millions upon millions of victims of our lunatic wars and criminal dictatorships.”

The Fallout

The victory of the no camp in France’s bitter referendum campaign is a body blow to France’s mainstream political parties, the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (U.M.P.) and the opposition Socialist Party (P.S.). Leaders of both parties campaigned for the new constitution.

President Chirac is now discredited for his final 22 months in office with a 32 percent approval rating. La Liberte de l’Est (May 28) compared him to “a political poker player” whose “final bluff” has been called. The unpopular centre-right Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, has resigned. [He was replaced by Villepin.]

France’s center-left Socialist party, the party of Mitterrand and the Maastricht treaty, is in disarray. It is not clear who, if anyone, can repair the fissures in its ranks. Certainly not party secretary Francois Hollande, whose appeal for a yes vote was rejected by 60 percent of the party’s membership. Nor the anti-European Laurent Fabius, the former Socialist prime minister who made a comeback campaigning against the constitution.

The main beneficiaries are leaders of the far right and far left who will try to take advantage of the political vacuum in the middle to advance their strategies.

“It is no exaggeration to say that the future direction of an European Union of 25 countries and 455 million people has suffered grievous collateral damage in the battle for the soul of an agonized and unhappy France,” commented Britain’s Guardian (May 31).