Feature

A resounding ‘Non!’ to the European Union

Why French voters rejected a stronger E.U.

What happenedFrench voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposed European Union constitution this week, dealing a potentially crippling blow to efforts to strengthen the European central government. French President Jacques Chirac, who had lobbied hard for approval, promptly replaced his prime minister and promised to address voter concerns believed to have influenced the outcome: dissatisfaction with a battered economy, and fear of losing France's cultural identity in a stronger Europe. 'œFrance has expressed itself democratically,' Chirac said in an address to voters. 'œIt is your sovereign decision.'

The constitution aims to make the E.U. more of an international force by concentrating authority in a strong presidency, and by giving the central government in Brussels the power to set foreign policy. Nine countries have already ratified the document, but it won't take effect unless all 25 E.U. members do so. As The Week went to press, the Dutch were voting in their own referendum, with exit polls showing 60 percent voting 'œno.' Many so-called Euro-skeptics are already declaring the broader battle over. 'œThere is no longer a constitution,' said Philippe de Villiers, leader of a French nationalist party.

What the editorials saidGood riddance, said The Wall Street Journal. Chirac and other 'œEuropean elites' thought they could jam this 448-article 'œmonstrosity' down the people's throats, without really explaining why voters should give any more power to a distant, 'œopaque' government. Europeans, it turns out, 'œare increasingly tired of being told to take their medicine and not ask too many questions.' Chalk up a victory for democracy.

This 'œdemocratic rejection' may 'œprove healthy for Europe,' said The Washington Post. The E.U. is growing, with 25 members already, and more lining up for admission. Its newest members are Eastern European countries 'œwith pro-American instincts' that reject the 'œGallic anti-Americanism' that has long been the 'œmotor' for European integration. With such a fundamental divide on foreign policy, Europe simply isn't ready to speak with one voice. Now E.U. leaders will be forced to devise a constitution that 'œjettisons the centralizing overreach' and leaves more room for true consensus-building.

What the columnists saidIt's hard to blame the French for getting cold feet, said David Ignatius, also in the Post. Their economy is a wreck, with 10 percent unemployment, and French workers fear that a flood of low-paid laborers from poorer E.U. countries will make matters worse. Still, they made a mistake. The constitution's chief virtue is that it would have started France, with its inflexible labor unions and 35-hour workweek, on a path toward greater market competitiveness in the world economy. The French are 'œright to worry about the future,' but clinging to their crumbling welfare state will only make things worse.

More than a vote against free markets, said Tony Blankley in The Washington Times, this may have been a protest against something even bigger: globalization. Increasingly, the nations of the world fear 'œlosing control' of their culture, their economies, their very identity. In the end, the French—for better or worse—may simply be saying they want to stay French.

But that's not all there is to it, said William Kristol in The Weekly Standard. The vote in France reflects a 'œcollapse in confidence' in the ruling elites of France and Western Europe altogether. The 'œout-of-touch' establishment that has brought us 'œEurope's failing welfare states,' oppressive multiculturalism, and rote anti-Americanism may now actually have to rethink its dogma. 'œIn the face of an arrogant, out-of-touch, debate-stifling old regime, a whiff of democracy can be liberating. And not just in the Middle East.'

What next?

The New York Times

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