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The French Revolt

The massive defeat of the new European Constitution by the French in a May 29 referendum means a virtual political revolution in France — a rebellion by the people against the political elites of both left and right. The French rejected the proposed EuroConstitution by a whopping 10 points, despite an overwhelming, mendacious campaign for a Yes vote by the mainstream French media (including a major pro-Yes bias in TV coverage) and tireless stumping for a Yes vote by nearly all the major political leaders of left, right and center. The No vote reflected the deep cleavage between what the froggies call “La France d’en haut et La France d’en bas” — the France of above and the France of below. Seventy-two-year-old President Jacques Chirac, his popularity declining, had put his prestige on the line in calling for the referendum (rather than having the parliament ratify it and bypass the voters, as his cannier partner in European construction, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, had done). But after each of Chirac’s two carefully staged, prime-time TV presentations in favor of a Yes vote, the No vote jumped several percentage points in the public-opinion polls, which simultaneously said the French found Chirac mediocre and unconvincing. (This was particularly true of a disastrous 90-minute TV show featuring Chirac being questioned by a hand-picked youth audience — Chirac, who has become deaf as a post and refuses to wear his hearing aid, couldn’t hear half the questions. When one questioner asked him about gay rights under the Constitution, saying, “I’m a homosexual,” Chirac responded, “You’re a what?” “A homosexual.” “Ah, oui . . .,” grimaced the president, who clearly had no idea what, if anything, the Constitution said about gay rights, and responded with filibustering generalities.) The No vote leaves Chirac terribly enfeebled at home and abroad. The French political revolt against the EuroConstitution was, as the exit polls confirmed, neither a rejection of the idea of a more united Europe nor principally a nationalist reaction. The No vote was largely motored by a socioeconomic cry of protest, in a France with 10 percent unemployment, against a Constitution that was designed to make Europe the unregulated playground of the multinational corporations. Movements of factories from France, with its strong trade-union movement and traditionally strong social safety net, to low-wage Eastern European countries with no effective unions and few or weak social protections — a migration already the cause of much anguish among the froggy employee class — would have been dramatically accelerated by the Constitution, which also would have abolished individual countries’ restrictions on the movements of capital, and institutionalized deregulation, privatization and unrestricted free-market competition as the hallmarks of European economic policy. That’s why two-thirds of salaried employees and three-quarters of the working class voted No (so did 59 percent of the under-25 young, who are traditionally quite pro-European, but who fear for their economic futures). The Iraq war demonstrated that the arguments in favor of an ever-stronger Europe advanced by the Nobel Prize–winning American economist Joseph Stiglitz have been prophetic. The former chief economist of the World Bank, Stiglitz became one of the most forceful critics of the Bank and of the International Monetary Fund, the twin global enforcers for multinational capitalism. Long before George Bush’s invasion of Iraq, Stiglitz argued — in a series of books and articles — that only a European Union that was both economically and politically puissant and coherent could provide a counterweight to the U.S.-led drive toward the economic globalization that gives the behemoth multinational corporations a free and untrammeled reign over our destinies, and offer some hope of resistance to the U.S. military adventures from which those multinationals profit so handsomely. Franco-German opposition to the Iraq war reinforced the accuracy of this analysis. The new European Constitution was not a step toward a stronger Europe, and would have actually lessened European influence on the world stage. In it, subordination of European security and military policy (and thus foreign policy) to NATO was set in concrete. And, as the former socialist defense minister of France, Jean-Pierre Chevenement (who resigned in protest over France’s support for the first Gulf War), repeatedly pointed out during the referendum campaign, under the Constitution the crucial role France played at the United Nations in opposing the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq would no longer have been possible. The Constitution would have restricted the ability of any member of the U.N. Security Council that is also an EU country (like France — or, as in proposals for Security Council enlargement now being considered, Germany) to take a position contrary to that adopted by the European Commission. And any single EU country could veto a position contrary to Washington’s. Thus, one would only need to buy a corrupt little country — like, say, Bulgaria — to block any EU action that would counter the American imperium. Moreover, the Constitution was anti-democratic, for it kept real power in the hands of the unelected European Commission (whose members are appointed by their national governments) rather than giving it to the elected Europarliament in Strasbourg. The EU’s presidency, currently a rotating one, was given a longer term — but the president, too, would have been appointed by the commission. The 300-page Constitution — the longest ever in the world’s history, and written in obscure legalese incomprehensible to the average voter — would have irremovably enshrined matters of policy, including conservative economic policies, that would normally be decided by democratically elected governments. And it could only have been amended by a unanimous vote of all 25 EU countries — another boon to the multinationals, which also easily could have purchased a veto from a small country’s government-for-sale. For all these reasons, the French were quite right to vote No, effectively killing this unwieldy, undemocratic and conservative plan for a corporate Europe — a rejection that offers the hope of building a Europe for its peoples in the future. DOUG IRELAND can be reached through his blog, DIRELAND, at http://direland.typepad.com/direland/.


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