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Published 14 April 2005

Letter from Europe - the New York Times + Vincent’s reaction

About "The Continental Dream: Will the French Shatter It?"

by ELAINE SCIOLINO - published on April 13, 2005.

This article is followed by Vincent’s reaction to the journalist’s analysis.

PARIS, April 12 - Historically, the French have liked the idea of a united Europe as long as they could run it.

France, after all, was a founding member of the six-country European Coal and Steel Community, which was the precursor to today’s 25-country union.

But in a brutal shock to the European experiment, 11 opinion polls in France in the last month have indicated that the French are poised to vote no in the national referendum on May 29 on Europe’s first constitution.

The margins may be small, but each poll has been a dagger into the heart of the French political elite. The constitution must be ratified by every member state to take effect, and if a member with the grandeur and gravitas of France votes no, the document will be doomed.

So with few exceptions, French politicians on both the right and the left have predicted dire consequences for both France and Europe if that happens.

"We would likely be completely isolated," President Jacques Chirac said last month. Rejection of the constitution would threaten France’s ability to protect its national interests; nothing less than "peace, stability, democracy, human rights and economic development and social progress in the world of tomorrow" is at stake, he added.

The mood in the country is reminiscent of 1992, when the French voted on the European Union treaty that committed members to creating a single currency. Predictions of a no vote provoked such a powerful wave of currency trading throughout Europe that the Continent’s monetary system almost collapsed.

In the end, the French approved what was known as the Maastricht Treaty by a razor-thin margin. But surveys of voters leaving the polls revealed deep fears about the loss of French sovereignty to a European super-state.

This time, the loss of sovereignty is one of several reasons for resistance, even though the constitution itself is by no means a revolutionary document, since it will not cede ground in the two areas where sovereignty is most crucial: foreign and defense policy.

Rather, it will consolidate past European Union treaties into a single document. It will also change the union’s voting system, removing, for example, national vetoes from some policy areas, like immigration, and streamline the union’s administrative leadership. But as France’s role as the dominant power of Europe has shrunk - first with the unification of Germany, most recently with the expansion eastward of the union to add 10 new members last year - France has become more anti-European.

"The French believe that their system is the best and that they are the center of the universe," Bernard Kouchner, the Socialist former health minister and one of the most popular political figures in France, said in a telephone interview. "It’s not true. They don’t realize they are like an old ship sinking slowly in the sea."

The constitution has been transformed into a repository of all the fears of the French today.

Some are convinced that the constitution will unfairly strengthen the power of the new countries of the union. Nearly 70 percent of farmers are opposed, for example, according to a poll in mid-March, because they see the European Union taking away precious farm subsidies.

Others fear that accepting the document will further damage the ailing French economy and increase unemployment - 10 percent in January - by moving jobs to places like Poland.

"For the past 25 years unemployment has been the French public’s foremost concern and their prime voting motivation," said a recent editorial in the left-leaning newspaper Libération, in explaining mounting opposition to the vote.

Others want to use the referendum to register general opposition to the French government. But even François Hollande, head of the Socialist Party and a potential presidential candidate in 2007, asked voters at a rally in Marseille last month to set aside politics and vote yes for the good of the country.

Addressing "all those who are suffering" from the policies of the Chirac government, he said: "You want to punish, you want to express your anger, you want to register your discontent and you are right. But do not make Europe the sacrificial lamb when the government is to blame. Europe deserves better."

Then there is the group of 95 mayors of towns in Haute-Saône, in eastern France, who have threatened to refuse to hold the elections in their towns. They are protesting the latest decision by the Ministry of Education to close some schools to reflect demographic changes.

Concern about the referendum was widely seen as the reason the Chirac government decided to raise the salaries of unionized civil servants by eight-tenths of 1 percent last month.

The move was seen as a display of solidarity with the government workers and a transparent ploy to get them vote yes next month. Just a month ago, civil servants had been told there was no money for raises.

The newspaper Le Monde ran a cartoon on its front page last month showing Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin handing out 100-euro bills to civil servants as Mr. Chirac, a European Union flag attached to his head, handed them yes ballots.

"Nobody can say whether this strategy of palm-greasing will result in an electoral victory on May 29," said an editorial in Le Monde a few days later, adding, "We often wonder if there is still a pilot in the governmental plane."

The government, meanwhile, has mounted a vast, but haphazard, campaign to sell the constitution.

One million copies of it have been made available free in the 6,000 stores of the Casino supermarket chain, two million more in 14,000 of the country’s post offices. There is a Web site and a phone number for those who want free copies sent to them. A children’s book, "Explain the European Constitution to Me," with a preface by Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the former president, is being distributed at schools. Mr. Chirac will debate a group of 80 handpicked university students on live television on Thursday.

But so far the French elite has failed to explain what the constitution will do for the average French citizen. This is a country where lobbying has not yet been elevated to a fine art. There is no "war room," as there was when the Clinton administration lobbied Americans to embrace the idea of NATO expansion, no bipartisan observer group of lawmakers, no pinpointing of interest groups.

"Allow a simple mother to give you some common sense advice," the editor of Elle Magazine, Michele Fitoussi, wrote in an editorial. "For us ’no’ is completely part of the national culture. It’s a sport and a hobby. Small kids learn it from the cradle."

She said politicians should deal with voters the way good parents deal with their children: "Talk to us. Explain it to us. And make yourself clear and convincing."


Vincent’s reaction:

In her “letter from Europe” published yesterday (April 13), ELAINE SCIOLINO tries to explain why “the French are poised to vote no in the national referendum on May 29 on Europe’s first constitution”. The reasons she puts forward are probably part of the answer, but she totally ignores one of the major issues that nourish the debate in France. Unlike the Maastricht Treaty vote, the public debate is not currently focused on “the loss of French sovereignty to a European super-state”, but on the social model that National and European elites are trying to impose on the populations without any other “dream” than a perfectly integrated capitalistic free market. In the last 3 years, the right-wing government has constantly put the blame on workers, civil servants, underpriviledged people and the public social system for the rising rate of unemployment and poverty in the country. The private managers’ organization called “MEDEF” has played a prominent role in the conservative reform policy of the government, and even though this may be seen as a strange state of mind from overseas, most French people do not trust economic lobbies to rule over public policies. The lack of French lobbying in the European institutions is mentioned in the article as a reason for France’s loss of influence, but this system of private lobbying and the weakness of democratic control over the European decision-making process are precisely key factors in the French skepticism towards this constitution. The ruling right-wing party in France (“UMP” ) and the center-left opposition (Socialist Party), who both support the European Constitution, are widely seen now as disconnected from the people’s realities and concerns, and a large part of those who want to “shatter the continental dream”, as Elaine Sciolino put it, are deeply pro-Europeans.

But with only 40 years of oil stock ahead, and a planet that obviously can’t sustain the growing pressure of frenzied consumption, waste of raw material, destruction of social cohesion and environmental diversity - generating more exploitation of the third world populations and more social distress in the West - major challenges are at stake for the next decades. The American governments have shown that they don’t care. On the opposite, Europe has the potential to embody another model that would deal with these issues before it’s too late. Many Europeans are waiting for that alternative model to emerge, not for the world to merge with the suicidary globalized capitalistic model that the US claims to export all around the world.

Many Europeans - not only in France - think that their continent should be given a constitution that tackles such kinds of challenges for the future. The European Constitutional Treaty that we are offered does not match these expectations. Instead, it consists in a patchwork of the previous economic treaties and very little new prospective ambitions for our continent. Promoting “free competition” as the most crucial principle of a constitutional foundation of Europe is anything but a “continental dream”. Just invite any American to take a look at the heavy format of the text, the lawyer-oriented edge of the language, and the bureaucratic dillution of constitutional principles in technicalities imported from previous treaties: would YOU accept a text like that as your ultimate democratic reference ? Still, French people are deeply interested in the question.

Instead of suggesting that the voters who plan to turn down the Constitution are essentially self-centered nationalists in a declining country, Elaine Sciolino should have reported about the huge number of people who read the text and take part in local debates about the vote. The arguments and discussions about Europe are now passionate but of much higher quality than any presidential campaign. This time, it’s not just a question of political spinning: people want to know what they’re really voting for.

The skepticism expressed in the opinion polls is not essentially against Europe, but against the gap between the explicit “Continental Dream” that a European constitution should encapsulate for the people and the current project, which was designed not as the expression of the European people’s will, but as a World Trade Organization sub-group set of economic rules.

Vincent Smith