While leaders of European Union nations are trying to decide how to interpret the French people's "no" vote on the EU constitution -- and what to do next -- I see the event as having great potential significance for my country, Iran.
My interest is not in why the French people turned down the new EU treaty by 54-to-46 percent, but rather the fact they had the opportunity to do so. By the time of last Sunday's French referendum nine of the 25 EU countries had approved the constitution--some by referendum, some by parliament.
In France the government of President Jacques Chirac was solidly for a "yes" vote, as were leaders of the Socialist opposition and most of the policy and intellectual elite of the country. The stakes were high. All member states must approve the constitution for it to take effect. Thus, President Chirac and others campaigned intensely, with appeals to unity, statesmanship, patriotism, trade interests. Alas for them, the people had other ideas.
A referendum, a vote of the people, is the ultimate expression of democracy in action. Democratically elected governments like to do the right thing. That is, to make decisions that are in their nation's interest, are fair, and will be accepted by their constituents, the voters. After all, they like being in office and want to stay there. Despite careful readings of the temperament of the electorate, such governments do not always gauge these things correctly. By putting the matter to a vote of the people, as they were required to do by law, the French leaders were staking their popularity and their future on a "yes" vote. In this case they failed to get the consent of the governed.
In my country the government never seeks the consent of the governed, the people. It stacks the deck. While we have regularly scheduled elections, the Guardian Council, a committee of Muslim clerics -- mullahs -- decides which of the registered candidates may stand and which will be ruled off the ballot. And, this unelected body has veto power over the elected government's actions.
Eight years ago our growing student democratic movement was assured by then-presidential candidate Hojatoleslam Khatami that he would institute a number of democratic reforms if elected. They supported him. He won, but now, eight years later as his second and last term ends, the reforms have yet to take place. Election for a new president will take place June 17. Some candidates wrap the "reform" label around themselves, but the student movement mistrusts them all and is urging voters to boycott the election. (Approximately 15 million voters -- 21 percent of those eligible -- voted in the last presidential election in 2001.)
What the student democratic movement is calling for now is a nationwide referendum -- just as France and other nations have. Petitions are being circulated to gather signatures for it. The petition puts forth this proposition: "We, the signers of this appeal, call for a national referendum -- in which all Iranian citizens may participate -- under the supervision of appropriate international institutions and monitoring by international observers, in support of a new Constitution that is compatible with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and all its associated covenants."
Signing the petition carries some risk in present-day Iran, for the mullahs do not like dissent. They rule through their unelected Guardian Council and they prefer that the international spotlight be on their nuclear program rather than suppression of democracy and human rights and their support of terrorism. Nevertheless, momentum for the referendum is growing in Iran and the example of the French people exercising their right to tell their government what to do is a powerful example for the people of Iran to behold.
There is an old saying, "What is good for the goose, is good for the gander." France and the Western democracies with their open, nationwide referendums are the goose in this case; Iran is the gander. With enough international pressure it may be forced to take the same path.