French electors will vote for or against the ratification of the "Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe" on May 29th. Their debates farcically repeat one of the features of the French Revolution. That tragedy was ignited when the ministers of King Louis XVI, when calling for elected representatives to discuss financial and constitutional reforms, simultaneously invited the French people to submit lists of their complaints. As Simon Schamas history explained, while some of the resulting lists of grievances were compatible with liberal reformers vision of a modern France "shaking off restrictions like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis," others clearly and more ominously showed a fearful desire "to return to the cocoon" of "a mythical France, governed by an all-seeing, just and benign monarch." Today as in 1789, many French people are not persuaded that the reforms favored by their elites address their daily grievances. In fact they are wondering whether the newly-enlarged European Community is one of the reasons their lives feel less cocooned.
This week, Jacques Chirac entered the debate, with a two-hour television special intended to sway doubting French voters to say "oui". He spent two hours responding to questions from eighty young men and women that he (or rather his public relations manager and daughter, Claude) had invited to his grand Presidential residence in Paris, the Elysée Palace. Seated in the sumptuous banqueting room of this old palace, the lively young audience were clearly less concerned by either the grandeur or the minutiae of the proposed Constitution than they were by massive unemployment and other gritty problems that make their lives seem precarious.
In the light of more than a dozen recent opinion polls indicating the growing weakness of the "yes" vote, Chirac has probably concluded that his decision to make Frances ratification of the Constitution subject to a popular referendum was as imprudent as was the decision of Louis XVIs ministers to ask people about their grievances.
It was probably equally mistaken for European politicians to call this treaty a "constitution." For one thing, it is far too long and detailed as is to be expected in a treaty summarizing the complex relations among 25 sovereign states now joined in the EU (6 of them since the 1950s). (However, it is not so long and detailed that people are not reading it, in spite of politicians assurances that mere citizens need not bother themselves with such demanding tasks: copies available at my little local post office soon found their way into homes, where I am sure they were at least dipped into.) More importantly, it is premature for the European Union to be considered as if it were a single polity for which a true "constitution," however federal, would be suitable. To pretend otherwise is like believing that the American Constitution would have worked without the nationalizing experience of the struggle for independence, and the towering presence of George Washington. As Chirac reassured his invited young guests at the Elysée, neither the Constitutions longer presidential term (2½ years, in place of 6 months) nor its new office of Minister for Foreign Affairs will displace the individual foreign policies of EU states when these policies do not concur. Thus, he was also obliged to admit, the Constitution would not have enabled the EU to adopt a unified position on important and divisive questions such as the war in Iraq (in which more than half of the 25 EU states supported the American position). His audience were clearly wondering, if the Constitution is so insignificant, why is it important to vote for it? How can it help them solve their problems?
There are good answers to this question, but Chirac did not give them, because to do so would have required that he abandon his long-established practice of playing to fears of "ultraliberalism" (the evils of which he has recently and completely irresponsibly compared to communism). In his television special which had been postponed because of the Popes funeral he repeated to his worried guests Karol Woltyjas injunction: "Be not afraid." Yet the gist of Chiracs support for the "Constitution" betrayed a lack of courage both on his part, and in his expectations of his fellow citizens. For his argument is not that the French are ingenious enough to flourish in the competitive economic environment of the enlarged EU that they can and should be butterflies rather than caterpillars. Instead, he argues incredibly and disingenuously that the EU does not expose France to such an environment. (Yes, I know, EU protectionism is notorious, but EU free market effects have been significant causes of European prosperity.) Chirac readily agreed with the sympathetic (and planted?) questioners who tried to counter French fears about economic competition from the new eastern European member states by pointing to similar (and in the event unfounded) fears when Spain and Portugal joined the EU in 1986. But he avoided drawing the conclusion that political and economic freedom is the best way to promote prosperity, for that would have made his defense of the Constitution sound like a defense of that detested monster, "Anglo-Saxon liberalism." The "conservative" Chiracs fanning rather than trying to diminish French fears of this monster is perhaps his greatest political failing.
Nor, it should be added, is Chirac being brave as was Charles de Gaulle, who in 1969 tied his continuing as President to the success of a referendum on regional and Senate reforms, and promptly resigned when that referendum failed. Asked if he would resign if the electorate reject the Constitutional Treaty, Chirac firmly said he would not.
Why, then, is Chirac so determined to get this Treaty accepted? After all, if it is rejected, his head wont be chopped off; he wont even feel compelled to resign. Moreover, do the French opponents of the Treaty not have a case? The French people are clearly reconsidering their place in Europe, and there is much elite as well as popular disenchantment with Frances relative marginalization. Given all the problems of the ever larger but not ever closer EU, Chirac himself might even secretly believe that Frances interests would be served by a rejection of the Constitution. However, he gave his Elysée audience and television viewers a dire warning about Frances fate if the Constitution is rejected by the French electorate: "At least for a certain time France will cease to exist politically in the heart of Europe." Clearly this "boomerang" effect is what Chirac has in mind not for France and for himself, but for Tony Blair and the UK. If the Constitution perhaps for good reasons is to be rejected, Chirac would much prefer that the United Kingdom (with its referendum in 2006), or failing that then Poland, become the "black sheep" of Europe by voting against it. That would make it more possible for France to work with Germany and a few others on reviving the importance of the "hard core" (oldest) EU members. It would also make it more possible for Chirac to run for re-election in 2007, or to move from the French presidency to that of the EU (which might well lengthen and strengthen its presidency even if the Treaty is rejected), should that ambition ever occur to him.
There remains time for public opinion to change, and undecideds or weakly-decideds are numerous, but if the televised pictures of the skeptical faces that the young audience showed to Chirac are a good indication, he has a long way to go in his effort to bat the referendum ball into Tony Blairs court.
John Zvesper is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs. He is an American living in southern France.