In a remarkable performance in front of 83 young people in a setting designed to resemble an American townhall meeting, French President Jacques Chirac last week declared that France would “cease to exist politically” unless French voters approve the proposed European constitution in a May 29 referendum. While the demise of France as a political force will cause few American Francophobes or British euroskeptics to shed tears, the fact that polls show that a slim majority of French voters is prepared to reject the constitution establishing the European superstate has the French political class in a collective hissy fit. A defeat on May 29 could well sideline the European project, as just one failed referendum (or one negative parliamentary vote) among the member countries is enough to sink the constitution.
“Confronted by the United States and a huge grouping of emerging powers like China, India, Brazil, South America, Russia…we cannot struggle against them alone,” the President warned. France without “a strong and organized” Europe would be consigned to the margins of global politics, he implied.
Chirac’s audience was not moved. For them, the defining experiences of their formative years have been high unemployment, job outsourcing, and a vague feeling of permanent economic insecurity. The test for the constitution, in the view of the students and the left generally, is whether it enshrines the “social protections” and the “acquired rights” which the French think are synonymous with Republican values under the benevolent guidance of a dirigiste state.
The referendum debate comes after several rough months for the Chirac government. Minor reforms to France’s 35-hour work week were enough to send thousands of workers into the streets, and inconsequential funding adjustments for schools and other subsidies have prompted strikes and marches in greater numbers than usual as the Left correctly interprets every government concession as an invitation to yet more extreme demands. Opponents of the European constitution have been quick to seize positions at the head of every demonstration.
Lurking in the background is the specter of Turkish membership in the European Union. French notions of tolerance, equality, and secularism have proven incapable of accommodating thousands of unassimilated Moslems who mock French society and whose most extreme elements have been responsible for an upsurge in anti-Semitic incidents in the past several years. Turkey’s accession to the European treaties — making it both the largest and the poorest of EU members — prompts visions of additional millions of Moslems flowing through open borders, radically altering French society. To prevent French voters from conflating the two issues — voting against the constitution to block the Turkish menace — Chirac scheduled the referendum well in advance of the negotiations on Turkish EU membership which are to begin this Fall. The Elysee Palace, however, failed to do its research since the date chosen, May 29, is the anniversary of the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. The Turkish issue will remain squarely at the center of the debate.
Oddly, what should be at the center of the debate — the constitution itself — is not. Partly this is due to the skill with which the partisans of “oui” envelop their arguments in vaporous platitudes appealing to French Republican sensibilities: the European “zone of peace,” solidarity, and opposition to Anglo-Saxon “ultraliberalisme,” a term meant to reassure the French that unbridled free-market capitalism will never supplant more elevated French ideals associated with the patrimonial state. On the socialist left, anti-Americanism provides both a convenient distraction and cements the tacit alliance between Francois Hollande’s divided Socialist Party and the Center-Right Chiraqians. Socialist activists are busy erecting banners demanding “A Strong Europe Against America,” although former Socialist Prime Minister Laurent Fabius’s opposition to the constitution has prompted large scale defections driven by fears that wage guarantees and benefits and what the French loosely term “The Social Contract” will be lost in a wave of global (meaning principally East European) competition.
That the EU constitution is perhaps the most appallingly written document of its kind in modern history apparently bothers no one in the French intellectual class. The constitution is a product of a self-selected clique of political grandees headed by former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing whose major accomplishment during his years in power was to solidify French relations with the third world by dipping into the French treasury to pay for the coronation of the odious and murderous petty tyrant, Bokassa I, then Emperor of the Central African Republic.
Napoleon Bonaparte once said that constitutions should be short and difficult to understand. At 511 pages (exactly 500 pages more than the U.S. constitution) and laden with purposefully abstruse and obfuscatory language, the constitution meets only the second of Bonaparte’s criteria. One sentence, for example, commits the Union to “work for a sustainable development based on balanced economic growth with a social market economy aiming at full employment and social progress.” That sentence alone contains five ambiguous terms crying out for definition, and reflects the drafters’ predilection to inject doctrinal and policy preferences in a document which, like most constitutions, ought to limit itself to general goals and procedural matters. The drafters couldn’t resist the temptation to load the text with the pretentious and awkward terminology drawn from current political tracts. It speaks of “conferral,” “proportionality,” “participatory democracy,” “loyal cooperation,” and “solidarity,” as if their restatement in this document confers truth and universality. And in a document that inserts itself into every activity from fisheries to day care, there was simply no room left for God. Thucydides does get a mention, as does the Enlightenment, as prominent sources of the European tradition. The exclusion of God and the Christian Church is, however, of little consequence in this secular nation, once known as the Eldest Sister of the Church.
Constitutional metaphysics aside, the vote on May 29th may well be decisive for the postmodern European superstate and its principal advocate, Jacques Chirac. Vilified in some American and British media, Chirac is one of the most underestimated politicians in the Western world. He speaks slowly and calmly, on occasion eloquently, in short, understandable sentences. Despite falling poll numbers, at his best, he can connect with the French people in a way that no French leader has since Charles de Gaulle. If he fails and the voters reject the European superstate, we will be able to thank the French people for once again doing the right thing for all the wrong reasons.