Andreas Whittam Smith: Why our politicians prefer fear to analysis

One in 10 of the voters has been through the entire text, and a further 46 per cent have read an extract
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The Independent Online

What extraordinary events the referenda on the European constitution are proving to be. Every French voter, for instance, has been sent a document 191 pages long. It contains 448 clauses, protocols and annexes. Electors are to read it and then go along to their local polling stations next Sunday and vote "yes" or "no".

What extraordinary events the referenda on the European constitution are proving to be. Every French voter, for instance, has been sent a document 191 pages long. It contains 448 clauses, protocols and annexes. Electors are to read it and then go along to their local polling stations next Sunday and vote "yes" or "no".

I would never have believed that such a complicated issue could be put to an electorate and obtain a full-hearted response. Yet the French are taking their duty seriously. One in 10 of them has been through the entire text and a further 46 per cent have read an extract.

Easy guides are best-sellers in the bookshops. Internet groups discuss every word. Television debates attract big audiences. Public meetings are well attended. Celebrities give their opinions. As in Britain, people have become increasingly concerned about the nature of the political process. Is it representative? Is it honest? Is it responsive?

French politicians haven't welcomed this interest. Like their counterparts around the world, they want our votes but not our involvement. Thus one French minister complained that there is always someone in a public meeting who will jump up and quote a particular clause of the constitution and ask for a comment. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, one of the socialist leaders, told Libération that he deplored debating line by line. Why ever not, I wonder.

Instead of analysis, politicians prefer fear. For example, the French Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, gave a speech the other day describing the dire consequences of a rejection. There would be long months of economic crisis. A "non" vote would expose France "to the winds". The Minister of the Budget forecast "a climate of uncertainty for business and for households".

Whether this tactic will have much success is doubtful; it made no impact on the Paris Bourse. And there is a further problem with the Raffarin approach. If attention is drawn to the context rather than to the text, then electors will vote according to what they think of the government rather than the constitution.

With eight days to go, Laurent Fabius, the former prime minister who has broken with his socialist colleagues to lead the "non" forces, replied with a nightmare from his own imagination. He described what he thought the government would do after a successful "yes" campaign. It would bring forward measures it had deliberately held back until the referendum was over such as reducing the size of the public sector, reviewing state help for the unemployed, limiting access to certain free health services, raising the prices charged by the nationalised gas industry, and so on.

These warnings have nothing to do with the merits or defects of the proposed constitution. But then leading politicians view the referendum in two ways: both as decisive for the future of Europe and as part of their battle for power within their own country. Indeed the second consideration may easily overwhelm the first.

It is widely said, for instance, that President Chirac called a referendum rather than relying upon parliamentary approval because he saw an opportunity to divide his socialist opponents - which he has succeeded in doing. And that he also wished to distract attention from the fact that he has just reached his 10th anniversary in power when people might say: "10 years, that's enough." Likewise, Mr Fabius knows that leading the rejectionists to victory would give him a shot at the presidency which he wouldn't otherwise have.

It is customary to describe Mr Fabius' supporters as comprising no-hopers of various kinds. A biting account of them was given by Raymond Barre, one of the more revered of former prime ministers. He said they were nostalgic for the old Common Market of six nations which France dominated, not understanding that enlargement was the welcome consequence of the collapse of the Iron Curtain. They still nurtured a concept of sovereignty that became outdated at the end of the First World War. They were businessmen who wanted protection from international competition. They were trades unionists who wished to preserve their privileges.

I don't believe, however, that this is the whole story. On their own, such a sorry lot would not account for the slight lead that the "no" camp has obtained in the latest polls - 52 per cent against the European constitution versus 48 per cent in favour. For it turns out that younger voters are more hostile than the older generations. One of M. Chirac's colleagues admitted that it is managers, students and young people generally "who are slipping through our fingers".

What explains this disillusion among the active part of the population? In our recent election, a widespread suspicion of the Prime Minister, Mr Blair, boiled over and strongly affected the outcome. In France the mood is rather one of bitter disappointment.

With each successive step in European integration, French electors have been told that great benefits would follow. They cheerfully gave up their own currency for the euro. In the event, for what? France's economic performance has gone on deteriorating. Now they ask the same question about the proposed European constitution. For what exactly? Trust us, the politicians reply. But we don't, neither in Britain nor France.

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