French Reactions to the EU Referendums

John Zvesper

June 1, 2005

We’ll never know, but it is unlikely that the proposed European "constitution" would have ushered in many great policy changes in the European Union. However, although its rejection by large referendum turnouts in two of the six original member states (France and The Netherlands) does not mean that the EU will disintegrate, it does mean that it will not soon grow wider or closer.

Ratification of the constitutional treaty by the core member states, or even by all 25 states, would have been far less striking than its rejection is. And while many voters in France and The Netherlands voted "no" for reasons barely related to the treaty, their doubts about immigration, recent and proposed expansion of the EU’s membership, labor market competition, and (in The Netherlands) EU budget demands on their tax money, are directly related to the central purposes of the EU and of this culminating treaty. So the treaty’s rejection was clearly a result of voters’ reconsideration of the European Union, and a demand that political leaders stop assuming that voters will quietly go along with the steady enlargement of its scope and purposes. For the French in particular, the European Union has changed from its origins in the 1950s as a psychologically acceptable kind of war reparations into a set of foreign demands and threats.

The treaty’s defeat has been a welcome shower of realism, which should cool the overheated fantasy of a European polity uniting 25-plus countries in one overarching set of institutions and policies. No doubt the European diversity that makes this idea a fantasy would have made itself felt at some point even if the treaty had been ratified (that is one reason the treaty would have been mostly harmless). Its emergence now merely accelerates European politicians’ education about their constituents’ wishes.

Or does it?

A week after the French referendum, Radio France cheekily imagined how French politics would have been different if the French had said "yes" on that pleasant Sunday, May 29th. What would have happened? Well, the broadcaster speculated, President Chirac would have gone on television that evening to assure voters he had heard their message, and that, as he had already promised, he would give the French government a strong new focus on domestic politics. Monday morning, he would have accepted the previously-announced retirement of Prime Minister Raffarin, and in his place, as long anticipated, he would have appointed his protégé Dominique de Villepin, who for some weeks had been preparing this new government’s personnel and policies, geared to giving priority to the problem of unemployment. Chirac would have announced one small surprise, bringing back Nicolas Sarkozy into government, to rank just below himself and Villepin, Sarkozy having persuaded Chirac that he should be allowed to combine being a government minister with continuing as President of their UMP party. As for the opposition Socialist party, they would have moved swiftly to remove from their leadership their number two man (Laurent Fabius), who was guilty of leading many in that party to vote against the party’s official "yes" position (decided in the party’s own referendum last December).

Of course, all these events are precisely what did happen during the week after the referendum. The principal political leaders have acted just as they would have done if (as they had hoped) the result had been "yes"! Radio France suggested that these leaders’ "collective autism" runs the risk that voters will be obliged to repeat this "no" in a more emphatic way.

It may come to that; in France, the barricades are never put into deep storage. But there remain some signs of sentient life in those leaders, who will eventually have to admit that the parrot is dead. President Chirac had a long meeting with Germany’s Chancellor Schröder the weekend after the two referendums. Doubtless they talked—as usual, in their only common language, English—about playing the crumpled anti-"Anglo-Saxon" card, in order to promote (as John Vinocur puts it) "their version of Europe’s battle-to-come, pitting the guardians of the welfare state against the icy Anglo-Saxon hordes of free-market capitalists." This anti-liberal rhetoric, which is often deployed by Prime Minister de Villepin as well, will surely characterize much of the French reaction to the referendum. After all, before the referendum Chirac tried to play this card in a way that would favor the treaty’s approval. Socialist "yes" proponents tried that too. Even Socialist "no" voters shared the common premise here—opposition to economic "ultra-liberalism"; they simply concluded that the EU and its latest treaty themselves are "ultra-liberal."

However, such anti-liberal rhetoric is vigorously rejected by Nicolas Sarkozy, now (again) Minister of the Interior. Sarkozy—less enthusiastically than Chirac—campaigned for a "yes" vote, but in explicit and well-publicized contrast to Chirac and Villepin, he favored the treaty for the same reason that Socialist "no" voters opposed it: he thinks that the EU helps pressure France to modernize (i.e. to liberalize) its economy. So it will probably be more interesting to see what Sarkozy has to say in his speech on June 11th as President of his (and Chirac’s and Villepin’s) UMP party, than to see the policies that Villepin is due to announce on June 8th.

Villepin and Sarkozy are rivals to replace Chirac as President in 2007. (Chirac himself is far less likely to run yet again now that the referendum has gone against his views.) The satirical Canard Enchainé quotes a Chiraquien dignitary: "It will be war between Villepin and Sarkozy; one will be killed outright, the other at least wounded." Villepin and Chirac suppose that in this rivalry Sarkozy is handicapped by his lack of experience in foreign policy (which Villepin, a career diplomat, has—as Americans have reason to recall). But the referendum results suggest that French voters want their leaders to be primarily responsible not for Europe, and certainly not (with all due respect for Villepin’s fine poetic vision) for the whole planet, but for France and its citizens. So Sarkozy’s relative innocence of foreign policy might turn out to be an advantage.

The first person I asked about the meaning of the referendum result was the woman who was serving me at my local (southern French) supermarket counter early on the morning after. She said French people had realized that they could not rely on Europe to solve their problems, they must sort themselves out.

Will France concentrate on sorting itself out? Or will it go on looking at the rest of the world as the source of its main problems, and at Europe mainly as a source of the solutions to these problems? The outcome of the rivalry between Villepin and Sarkozy could well decide this question.

John Zvesper is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs. He is an American living in southern France.