Feature

Why the voters said no to Europe

The week's news at a glance.

France

The French have spoken, said Jean-Marie Colombani in Le Monde. They have said no to a stronger, more united Europe. Charles de Gaulle once said he would only honor a referendum if the results were “frank and massive.” France’s unequivocal rejection this week of the European Union’s constitution was certainly that. We can’t pretend the voters were pronouncing on one or the other specific clause in the 448-article document. The constitution does nothing particularly radical: It merely streamlines the E.U. decision-making process to make it workable for the enlarged union of 25 members. In rejecting it, French voters were—futilely, of course—trying to reject the “inevitability of change.”

“The French ‘no’ is a nationalist, isolationist ‘no,’” said Arnaud Leparmentier, also in Le Monde. It is ultimately “a refusal to share sovereignty.” The European Union was a French idea from the outset, with the goal of making all of Europe a “kind of greater France” that could keep Germany in check. So from the creation of the first European Community of six members on, European institutions deferred to France. But “this favorable bias collapsed” in 2002, when the then 15-member E.U. invited 10 Eastern European countries to join. Mostly ex-communist, the new prospective members were staunchly pro-market and pro-American. The very next year, with the controversy over the Iraq war, France discovered that, “even with Germany on its side, it could still be in the minority” in the expanded, 25-member E.U. At that time, the 10 weren’t even official members yet—they were inducted in 2004—but many of them already refused to follow France and Germany, instead sending troops to join the U.S.-led coalition.

That Eastern European defection cut France deeply, said Yves Mény, also in Le Monde. Long used to getting its own way, the country responded with petulance. Rejection of the E.U. project swept the entire spectrum of French politics. The xenophobic right voted no out of fear that “hordes of Polish plumbers” would steal French jobs. But the right could not have prevailed without the paranoid left, which sees the E.U. as a tool of globalization, a pro-market overlord intent on dismantling social welfare programs. Liberalism is treated as an evil, “as if we don’t all live and work in a market economy.” The hard truth is that France does need to reform its economic system if it is ever to get the unemployment rate below 10 percent.

But French voters can’t accept reform, said Serge July in Paris’ Libération. For the past 20 or even 30 years, France has been stubbornly protecting its statist, socialist ways, seeking “at all costs to keep the status quo” even as the global economy changes around it. The “no” vote was a demand that “the world freeze,” an attempt “to halt the currents that have been rushing the world along.” Sadly, the attempt was counterproductive. The E.U. constitution, for all its faults, would have created a way for the 25 countries to “counterbalance the forces of ultraliberalism, to regulate the market, to preserve Europe’s social safety net.” Instead we are left with our precious status quo—a Europe not fully integrated, a France floundering in economic malaise.

Jean-Claude Kiefer

Dernières Nouvelles d’Alsace

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