The French have just voted down, by referendum, the latest treaty negotiated among the states that make up the European Union. It is being called a constitution but the document does not read like one. It is too long, convoluted, and detailed to be a genuine constitution.
A constitution should set out principles of justice and rights. It should be as understandable as the Ten Commandments, and as uplifting as Bach played on the organ in church on Sunday. The pretend European constitution is none of this.
Constitutions are democratic when they are about how a people chooses and dissolves a government (and not how, in the words of Bertolt Brecht, a government dissolves a people).
France is a republic and the public matters. Its 1958 constitution states: (Article 1) "France shall be an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic. It shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction of origin, race or religion. It shall respect all beliefs."In the French Republic, the government does not have to undertake formal consultations for citizens to make themselves heard. Demonstrations, street action, open letters, the formation of political clubs, and parties are part of its life.
Referendums are not very democratic. Indeed, they are often antidemocratic. Think of the Colonels who ruled Greece, the cradle of democracy, holding referendums asking the people to confirm their hold on power, and winning, with announced percentages in the 90s.
The my way or the highway high-handed approach to public consultation was a specialty of Charles De Gaulle. Vote for my constitution, or I leave, he told the nation in the debate over adopting the constitution of the Fifth Republic in 1958.
Later, after the revolutionary actions of May 1968, De Gaulle called another referendum on regional devolution. He lost it, considered it a rebuke, and quit, leaving his prime minister, George Pompidou, a path to the presidency, and ensuring that after De Gaulle there would be Gaullism.
Many say the referendum campaign revealed a malaise in the French left. Most commentators noted that the Socialist Party split over the vote. But there was a larger issue at stake: which way ahead for France?
The Socialist/Communist/Green alliance put together by FranÃ§ois Mitterand to counter Gaullism, has been in trouble since its candidate, Lionel Jospin, failed to get through to the run-off election against Jacques Chirac for the French presidency. Without its own candidate, the left was forced to support Chirac against the candidate of the far-right, racist, National Front.Instead of recognizing the support he had won from the left, and conducting his government so as to take account of the left agenda, Chirac decided to ramp up the economic reforms of the right: privatization, deregulation and the globalization agenda of the WTO on investment and services.
Those opposing Chirac were able to link the EU treaty to his right-wing agenda. In effect, the future course of the EU was seen as revealing a split between corporate Europe and social Europe, and an imbalance in the proposed document towards the corporate forces.With the defeat of the yes side, it is the turn of the Gaullists to rethink their future. Chirac has thrown his unpopular prime minister to the wolves, but he is tempted to look to the next presidential election and try and win a third term for himself. Such a move would split his party.
The referendum campaign in France on the European Union was mostly about France, and only secondarily about Europe. A large majority of French citizens share the vision of a European citizenship. A majority also reject right wing economic reforms, having concluded that without the proposed treaty, France is still European, and social Europe has a better future.
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