"Yes to the Europe I Want - but No to This One"

By Milner, Henry | Inroads, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

"Yes to the Europe I Want - but No to This One"


Milner, Henry, Inroads


Reflections on France's rejection of the EU Constitution

I SPENT THE 2004-5 ACADEMIC YEAR IN EUROPE (THE FIRST TWO months in Sweden, the rest in France), culminating with the May 29 referendum on the European Union Constitutional Treaty. Fifty-five per cent of French voters rejected it. Three days later, 62 per cent of the Dutch did likewise. Across the Channel in Britain, a nasty general election was fought. Had they been able to vote on the EU Treaty, the British too would have rejected it.

In this article I offer some criticism of French politicians, keeping in mind that, as a Canadian, I am not in an ideal position to cast stones, given the sordid revelations of the Gomery hearings and the unsavoury manoeuvrings of Paul Martin to stay in office, which coincided with these events. (The silver lining was that, for once, my colleagues could not dismiss Canadian politics as dull.)

The French campaign was puzzling and ultimately worrisome. In other member states, including the Netherlands, a simple rule generally applies: those whose priority is to strengthen the EU are on the Yes side, while the No is identified with those who emphasize national interests. This makes for reasonably straightforward debates. For example, opponents of adopting the euro in the Swedish referendum in the fall of 2003 were able to convince a sufficient number of Swedes that it wouldn't be good for Sweden. They didn't claim that Sweden's rejection of the euro would be good for Europe

While the Dutch outcome was affected by the still simmering anger over the murder of outspoken filmmaker Theo van Gogh by an Islamic radical (see Paul Lucardie, "A Multicultural Murder?", Inroads, Summer/Fall 2005), the No side won essentially because it persuaded enough people that the course being pursued by the EU threatened Dutch interests. To do so, it played on resentment of Brussels for taking Dutch people s money but ignoring their concerns - "the same people who fooled you with the euro are fooling you now with this constitution."

In France, however, many proponents of the Non sounded more pro-Europe than proponents of the Oui. Thousands of posters and hundreds of op-eds told us: "Oui à l'Union; non à la Constitution." Most Non voters were expressing their vision of French self-interest, a vision they saw threatened by expansion of the EU to the cheap-labour east, by potential inclusion of Turkey and by Muslim immigrants. These Non voters took their cues primarily from the various far-right opponents of the Treaty. But the Non could not have attained a majority without many left-wing voters who favoured EU integration.

The issue is a complex one and, no doubt, many people hold contradictory positions on the Treaty. But we cannot reduce the Non majority to an informed vole of protest. Especially in the last six weeks of the campaign, the level of political discussion was intense. In a poll asking respondents if they had discussed the issue in the last eight days, five out of six said yes by midMay. The EU Constitution debate roused my Sorbonne general arts students out of their usual apolitical stance. Unlike their more politically sophisticated confrères and consoeurs at "Sciences Po" (the ''grande école" in the 7th arrondissement which served as my research base), they were instinctively on the Non side. Sciences Po students, on the other hand, identified with the political and administrative elite they were being trained to join - many of whose members live in the 7th arrondissement. (The 7th arrondissement voted 80 per cent for the Oui, the highest Oui score in the country.) But my Sorbonne students were no more anti-Europe than the students at Sciences Po. They saw their Non vote as a statement of hope for a better France, a better Europe and a better world. To make sense of the French decision and its implications, we need to understand this strange phenomenon, the pro-Europe Non.

Two simultaneous referendums

The best way to understand how France, a country where 80 per cent declare themselves in favour of European integration, voted to put a spoke in the wheels of that process is to begin with the fact that, in effect, two referendums took place. …

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