French lessons in holding a Euro referendum

If France were to reject the constitution, then the concept would instantly expire
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The Independent Online

On Wednesday evening, between 6 o'clock and 10 o'clock, some 120,000 French people will be able to vote for or against the European Constitution. They are Socialist Party "militants". That this group should be the first citizens of any European country able to register a "yes" or a "no", albeit in an unofficial poll, is a surprising turn of events.

It may also be decisive. For a non by a party which is strong enough to carry the next presidential and legislative elections would render it much harder for President Chirac to win a referendum on the issue. And if France, whose vision for the future of Europe has always been on a grander scale than its neighbours', were to reject the constitution, then the concept would instantly expire. We would have witnessed an act of infanticide by a country that created the European ideal and drove it forward in its early years.

Whatever the result, the way the French Socialist Party has been conducting the poll is a model for participative democracy. There have been 400 local meetings. Most have been structured as debates, with speakers for and against strictly alternating. Countless pamphlets have been produced and every member has received a copy of the proposed constitution.

The question that electors are asked to decide is simple: "Do you approve of the European Constitution, yes or no?" There is no postal voting. Just turn out next Wednesday evening, go to the nearest party office, take a ballot paper, tick oui or non and drop it into a box. I wish that we could conduct our referendum in a similar manner, starting with local meetings, then moving to the level of the national parties, until finally we are ready for the question to be put in a national referendum.

That the French are conducting the debate in this manner, however, is entirely fortuitous. Left-wing parties are generally supportive of the European constitution. Earlier this month, for instance, the 200 Socialist members of the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly to support it. And in France, polls conducted last month showed that 65 per cent of socialist voters were in favour. There was astonishment, therefore, when Laurent Fabius, the deputy leader of the party, a former prime minister and presidential hopeful, declared that he was opposed.

M. Fabius's critics accuse him using the European issue as a way of positioning himself to be the sole Socialist candidate to challenge M. Chirac. If so, it is a high-risk strategy, for if M. Fabius fails next week, as is entirely possible, it is hard to see that his political career has much of a future.

What M. Fabius says is this. The proposed European constitution is in effect a liberal, free-market construction, Anglo-Saxon in its spirit. It does nothing to deepen the links between member states. It fails to strengthen the social dimension of the European Union. Worse still, it is not a step towards creating a single European power, able to deal with the United States on level terms and with an ability to see off, say, China and India if necessary. As he wrote recently: "A 'yes' is a renunciation, albeit involuntary, of the good intentions and the grand idea of a European power. A 'no' creates the possibility of a rebound."

Two aspects of this approach are striking. First, M. Fabius shares with M. Chirac the idea that Europe's destiny is to be a superpower led by France. Since enlargement, however, that vision has become unrealistic. Too many of the new members are essentially Atlanticist like Britain.

Second, there is the mismatch between the French understanding of the new constitution and the British. The French can see that it is pervaded by free-market notions, by a regard for the virtues of competition and that it fails to provide a mechanism for coalescing into a single European power. Contrast this with the state of British public opinion that sees the European constitution as an enthronement of Brussels over legislation enacted by Parliament at Westminster. Each thinks the other is plotting against it.

One finds the same contradictory readings of the constitution within Europe's socialist parties. Campaigners for the "no" vote in France claim that the constitution does not protect the rights of Europe's workers and could undermine French efforts to boost employment. Yet on Saturday, the heads of government of Germany, Spain and the Czech Republic, each leading left-of-centre administrations, published an appeal to French socialists to vote in favour. They say French socialists should support the constitution precisely because it consolidates European values, (ie, not Atlanticist) and allows the further development of social cohesion.

So the text of the constitution can be read in a number of ways. What French socialists find we shall learn later this week. But isn't this the nature of written constitutions in a democracy? They are the rules of the game. They no more favour one political party at the expense of another than do the rules of football favour one team over another. In turn what this means is that those who oppose the constitution always have an ulterior motive - Mr Howard's Tories to leave Europe altogether, M. Fabius to give himself a good start for the presidential election.