Friday, April 15, 2005

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Will realpolitik sell the EU constitution to the French?

In six weeks, the French will vote on a referendum to ratify the EU constitution. Current polling in France runs about 55% against, and twelve straight polls have had the "no" camp in the lead.

In an attempt to combat this trend, last night French President Jacques Chirac held a nationally televised town hall-style meeting with 83 "young people."

Two things were interesting about the event and its aftermath. The first was Chirac's principal arguments for ratification -- political and economic balancing against the United States. According to the Wadhington Post's Erika Lorentzsen:

"What would be the role of France tomorrow if we block this process?" [Chirac] asked during a question-and-answer session with young people and journalists, broadcast from the Elysee Palace. "We will not be strong, and Europe would not be strong enough against the big powers."

Proponents of the constitution contend that it is crucial to making the European Union, an often internally divided alliance, more influential in world affairs. Among many Europeans, this means standing up to the United States....

In his remarks, Chirac sought to convince voters that irrational worries were standing in the way of the constitution, which he said would protect Europe from an "ultra-liberal" and "Anglo-Saxon" economic model, code words for American-style free-market capitalism.

"I'm always surprised to see this expression of fear," he said. "Europe needs to feel proud of itself and France in its principal role in defending our interests. This fear of young people I don't understand. I have confidence in France and our future."

In the Financial Times, John Thornhill and Peggy Hollinger provide an even more explicit quote:

Mr Chirac said the treaty, which established a new set of rules for the expanded European Union of 25 countries, was essential to preserve French values. “What is the interest of the Anglo-Saxon countries and particularly the US? It is naturally to stop Europe's construction, which risks creating a much stronger Europe tomorrow,” he said.

The second interesting thing was that Chirac's line of argumentation floundered. Both the BBC and CNN International have recaps of the French media response, and they were not good. From the latter's round-up:

"In front of an audience in which those favoring the 'No' seemed to be in the majority, the head of state often struggled to make heard his pro-European plea during a muddled broadcast," the conservative Le Figaro wrote on its front page.

"Chirac: difficulty reassuring," LCI television said, while the left-leaning Liberation newspapers said Chirac appeared "strained, almost clenched-up" in the meeting.

Laurent Fabius, a former Socialist prime minister and leading "no" campaigner accused Chirac of trying to scare voters into backing the charter.

"I found Mr. Chirac, like the constitution, long and not very convincing," he told RTL radio.

"I was very struck to see Mr. Chirac saying on the one hand, 'don't be afraid', but his main argument was to try to create fear."

The Economist, among others points out that much of the "no" support might have less to do with the EU constitution and more to do with Chirac's growing unpopularity. However. going back to the FT, it's possible that the two may actually be linked:

[S]ome of the audience said the constitution was too complex and doubted it would make any difference to their lives. They quizzed Mr Chirac aggressively over France's high unemployment, the threat to the country's public services and the possible influx of cheap labour from eastern Europe.

Asked by one voter why the unemployment rate was so much lower in the UK than in France, Mr Chirac replied that Britain had social rules that would not be “acceptable to us”.

....Mr Chirac's greatest political rival, Nicolas Sarkozy, the populist president of the ruling UMP party, on Thursday contradicted the president's upbeat views by saying that the “French social model” was failing the people.

In a speech in southern France, Mr Sarkozy said that with a 10 per cent unemployment rate France should stop saying its system worked better than that of others. “In 20 years both the left and the right have doubled the credits to combat unemployment but we have not produced one fewer unemployed person,” he said.

Even the Economist acknowledges that, "in contrast to the Maastricht vote, which led to the euro, it is hard to say what is at stake in the EU constitution."

It will be very interesting to see how this plays out over the next six weeks. My hunch is that support for the "yes" side will increase as the vote nears -- and even if the referendum fails, the French can simply schedule another referendum. On the other hand, if the quixotic combination of realpolitik and social democracy doesn't generate majority support in France, then I'm not sure where it will work.


posted by Dan on 04.15.05 at 12:12 PM


Yup. Votes on joining anything related to the EU come out as this:

No = try again, over and over until the vote is Yes

Yes = forever

posted by: Tom Holsinger on 04.15.05 at 12:12 PM [permalink]

I witnessed the TV show and commented on my blog

posted by: Francis on 04.15.05 at 12:12 PM [permalink]

Nice post. I think the line on the way to being Chirac's political epitaph is "Je ne le comprends pas" -- his reaction to the negative tone of the questioning last night. And indeed it's the hollowness of the geopolitical objectives that he sets for the Constitution compared to the reality of stagnant labour markets that makes for a gulf in understanding like that.

To Dan's list of trip-up factors, one could add: dilution of Common Agriculture Policy benefits to France with enlargement; the totally botched Bolkestein directive on services competition (and Bolkestein comes across disastrously on television, a truly arrogant SOB); the unresolved issue of Turkey; and a general sense that the EU is an elite-driven project. But there's other stuff too.

posted by: P O'Neill on 04.15.05 at 12:12 PM [permalink]

Should we Americans root for a oui or a non? If continued American primacy is in our interest, wouldn't a Europe that's a unified actor and militarily strong destroy that primacy overnight?

posted by: Powermad on 04.15.05 at 12:12 PM [permalink]

It's interesting that opposition to the EU constitution is coming from both ends of the French political spectrum--the Socialists at one end, Sarkozy at the other. Tom H. is right, of course--only a "Yes" vote will be regarded as binding; otherwise they'll just keep trying--but if support for the EU is this anemic in a Maastricht country like France, we may be seeing the first signs that this whole misguided project is unraveling.

Obviously, the opposition is anything but united, but it's encouraging to see someone like Sarkozy emerging as a credible French leader. Right now the prospects for Europe generally and France in particular over the next several decades look pretty bleak. Most Americans would love to see the Europeans pull out of their tailspin and adopt some new governing policies that deal with the world as it is; Chirac and his allies in Brussels seem hopelessly locked into a vintage 1965 worldview.

posted by: utron on 04.15.05 at 12:12 PM [permalink]

I'm afraid that my hunch regarding your hunch (last paragraph) is that it is misplaced. There appears to be a groundswell growing for a resounding no and it does not really have much to do with the constitution. It appears to be linked to internal politics, quite simply because the constitutional treaty is way too long and complicated for people to vote with respect to it. What happens is that the present government of France is deeply unpopular - according to polls, no prime minister has been so unpopular in polling history.

On another note, americans should not make too much of the geo-political argument developed by Chirac. That, as they say, is strictly for internal consumption, and is quite desperate.

posted by: bernard1 on 04.15.05 at 12:12 PM [permalink]

Bernard -- not 100% sure I agree. Tis true that the French government always sells Europe to the French people as a means of standing up to the US and as a means of expanding French influence in Europe. The thesis seemed to be that if France could export its model to the rest of Europe, Europe in practie would not lead to any real loss of French sovereignity. france would find its voice in the world strengthened.

That vision of Europe always had a bit more appeal inside France than in the rest of "Europe", and always had an element of a "myth" to it -- there were some compromises inherent in French membership in Europe. I suspect (and I no longer regularly follow the French press) that part of Chirac's problem is that this traditional message rings increasingly hollow, even inside France. Not because the French don't want a Europe that will stand up to the US, I think they really do (apart from some French liberals who want to emulate the US). But rather because they doubt that France really will be able to create a Europe in France's image.

Incidentally, what is Fabius' game in all this?

posted by: brad on 04.15.05 at 12:12 PM [permalink]


(this is the bernard you know on your blog under another id)

The sad truth is the following, backed by serious polling.

1) the present government is detested, especially its prime minister, who polls 28% favorable versus over 50% unfavourable. This is the worst score of any French pm in polling history. Chirac himself is also polling poorly for a president.

2) When offered several reasons that could lead them to change their no vote into a yes vote, 21% of no voters say the firing of the prime minister, 7% say a departure of Chirac. The 21% translate into an approximate 10 point swing from no to yes, eg a yes vote at 55%. Other reasons score very little in polling.

3) when asked whether they like Europe, a vast majority say yes. In fact, in president Chirac's recent TV show, the only convincing (from post-show polling) statements that he made related to the necessity of a constitution for Europe (59 versus 34 and to the usefulness for Europe to devise a foreign policy (52 versus 37). On subjects such as the impossibility of a renegociation following a no, the enlargment to 25 countries, the democratic advances of the present project, and the consequences of a no vote, the french were basically evenly split after Chirac's show. Chirac scored a massive negative on the consequences of the constitution for day-to-day life, the future of public services, the social content of the constitution, the absence of link between adopting the constitution and accepting Turkey in. He scored a significant no (39 versus 31) on the possibility to renegociate Bolkestein's directive (opening up of services).

This whole thing is actually internally consistent. The present government is considered extremely liberal by the French, however other people may consider it (I'm not quite sure whether it's from Mars or Venus, but the French are definitely from a different planet). They gave it a resounding defeat in last year's regional elections (actually bigger defeat than the recent Berlusconi defeat), there was no change of substance in government. People are desperate to humiliate the government and will simply refuse to agree to anything that this government offers to them. In the face of massive unemployment for 30 years, the reaction of the average French is to treasure public services. The reason: employment in public services is guaranteed for life. Simple as that. Forget the grand European ambitions, this is a domestic mass revolt in the making. This is second generation mass unemployment.

An aside for those of you who believe that, following a no vote, a second, or third referendum can be called easily: please study the French constitution of the 5th republic. I am sure it is available in English for those of you who forgot to learn French.

posted by: bernard1 on 04.15.05 at 12:12 PM [permalink]

First, Fabius is a politician from the socialist party, who has always had an image of being somewhat to the right of the party - he was born with a silver spoon ... - and of being the archetypical technocrat. He has drawn the lesson of the defeat of Jospin in French presidential elections and believes strongly in regrouping everything that is left in a first round (from loony trotskysts to centre left middle class), prior to making a move for the centre in a second round. His present positioning is not that bad from this point of view.

Second, the socialist party is riddled with personal feuds. Everyone hates everyone - there is only room for one at the top... -, but everybody hates Fabius. He may now hope to kill them all in one swoop with a resounding no success. French politics are about who is doing what to whom, and nothing else.

Third, Fabius has always been lukewarm with regards to Europe. Back in 1982-83, he was on the side of those who were in favour of France leaving the ERM. He is presently described as being "première gauche" (ie old labour) as opposed to D. Strauss-Kahn who is seen as "deuxième gauche" (ie new labour). France is however not the UK. Mitterrand was "première gauche", Rocard was "deuxième gauche". Mitterrand punished Rocard by making him a minister of planning (Gosplan in russian), with the exact same degree of influence on real life as Gosplan under Gorbatchev)...

Fabius's game is not without merit. Had he approved the referendum, he would anyway have lost the party race to his main rival, whether the referendum was lost or won. Now, he has some chance of winning: from his point of view, he made the right, cold calculation.

posted by: bernard1 on 04.15.05 at 12:12 PM [permalink]

Bernard -- thx.

I always thought of silver spoon/ technocrat Fabius as more new labour than old labour (easier to use the English terms in English), so am a bit surprised that you put him in the old labour world. But the notion that he sees some political space and wants to exploit it makes sense. I guess DSK has been rehabilitated, and presumably Fabius seems something to gain by capturing the fears about europe from the French left.

I agree that Chirac is seen as something of a liberal (using the french meaning of that term) -- didn't he embrace a big time privatization drive when he was PM in the mid 80s that included TF1 and things like that? And from what you say, Raffarin has lost his common touch. What I don't quite get is how on one hand Sarkozy seems to be doing well with a liberal (again, in the french sense of liberal) critique of the welfare state, even as the French fret about too many liberalizing reforms from Brussels (the service stuff).

and apologies if I am missing something obvious: I don't follow French politics that closely right now, too busy tracking BW2, as you know -- probably should start again, though, given all your arguments about the impact of the refendum on the euro/$.

posted by: brad on 04.15.05 at 12:12 PM [permalink]


Make no mistake. I have not said that Fabius is Old Labour. I have said that he is being described as old labour. I might add that it happens to suit his needs at this precise moment to be described as old labour...

As for Sarkozy, there is a big difference between being popular in semi-opposition as a free-marketeer, and being popular in office as a free-marketeer. The French love someone who can talk the talk and says every five minutes, all we need to do is this and our troubles go away. Letting them act is a very, very different thing. In any case, my personal view is that someone who has treason written in his resume as his main professional activity will not ever get to the highest office in France. Too many people have too much to fear. Though I'll gladly admit that my view seems extremely contrarian at the moment and most analysts would disagree. I guess that's when options are really cheap and couldn't care less, having a near perfect political track record on both the US and France over 20 years (yeah, I love to boast, at least I have this in common with Sarkozy).

posted by: bernard1 on 04.15.05 at 12:12 PM [permalink]

bernard -- could you flesh out your Sarkozy/ treason comment. presumably it is not a reference to backing balladur back in the early 90s ... so am curious what it is?

posted by: brad on 04.15.05 at 12:12 PM [permalink]

Nice post, Daniel. I just don't agree with your conclusion on sheduling another referendum if the no wins. Would never happen here. The political power of a refrendum in France is considered at the top level of the hierarchy. We are not in Ireland, and have had a long tradition of holding referenda under the 5th republic.
And interesting debate in the comments too (hi, bernard1 !).
A small correction to utron : socialists and sarkozy are not supporting the no. socialists have had an internal referendum, and approved the treaty with a small majority, and Sarkozy is officially promoting the yes.

To Brad : Sarkozy's felony is exactly that. After years of support by CHirac, he left his mentor to back Baladur as presidential Candidate. Balladurians were a minority, and, after they lost (heavily) and Chirac was elected, al of them (Sarkozy, Devedjian, ...) have been put aside of the RPR's management. Now, they are coming back en force, with Sarkozy ahead of them. But he still has a lot of enemies, Chirac being the first among them.

posted by: versac on 04.15.05 at 12:12 PM [permalink]


Listen to versac (bonjour), he's pretty good, though he is shy to give you the inside dirt on Chirac/Sarkozy where it gets personal. I'll put it this way: Bernadette will not forgive him, ever.

Anyhow, these days when you listen to Sarkozy - he heads what we call the party of the president, ie president Chirac -, you get the impression that 1/3 of his time is being spent dissing Chirac, 1/3 is spent offending party rivals, and 1/3 actually campaigning for this referendum. Some campaign. The knives are drawn, post-29th may will see blood.

posted by: bernard1 on 04.15.05 at 12:12 PM [permalink]

Thanks for the correction, versac. Your clarification raises a question, though: if both Chirac and the Socialists are supporting the Constitution, who is speaking against it? Bernard1 noted Fabius above; are there any prominent opponents on the right, or is this largely a grass-roots opposition?

posted by: utron on 04.15.05 at 12:12 PM [permalink]

Utron -- the most prominent right-wing opponent as far as I can see of the constitution is Philippe de Villiers. Who is quite effective, there was one TV spot last week where he said Raffarin would soon be promising rabbits for hunters and trout for fishermen in order to get the referendum passed. But you're right, it's basically a grassroots operation, being run either by dissidents in the big parties or by small parties that are essentially personal vehicles of particular politicians.

posted by: P O'Neill on 04.15.05 at 12:12 PM [permalink]

bernard, versac -- merci/ thx. most helpful. gotta start paying more attention to french politics.

posted by: brad on 04.15.05 at 12:12 PM [permalink]

I confirm what P. O'Neil says : mainly grassroots, but a decomplexed grassroots movement. Fabius, as a main political leader, traditionally in favor of Europe, has enabled many people who were doubting to go and act for the no.
This is also the expression of a political crisis : parties in favor of the yes represent grossly 70% of the voices in the presidential or legislative elections. And the no is at a top 54% in polls. 36% of the french don't follow their party line ! The expression of a lack of trust in the traditional parties, (and not only on the european issue, I think).
I'm afraid people tend to listen more and more to extreme and radical movements (more on the left side).

posted by: versac on 04.15.05 at 12:12 PM [permalink]

In my experience the French (like we Americans) are extremely nationalistic. They take a great deal of pride in their country, it's history and it's place in the world.

What if the US was asked to sign on to the "Western Hemisphere Union" compact? I can't imagine Americans going for it. Too much pride and nationalism...nevermind the economic and military impacts.

posted by: carla on 04.15.05 at 12:12 PM [permalink]

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