John Lichfield: Stupid, selfish and self-deluded... the French voters who are endangering Europe's future

No other country in Europe, no other mainstream left , wants to call into question free markets
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The Independent Online

After a 2,000-mile Tour de "France on the verge of a nervous breakdown", I have reached my beloved Normandy. Usually that lifts my mood; not this time. I am depressed. I am depressed as a moderate enthusiast for a united non-federal Europe. I am depressed as a Francophile, someone who fervently wishes France to remain France but also to succeed and to lead, not to bury itself in self-defeating nationalism and political illusions.

After a 2,000-mile Tour de "France on the verge of a nervous breakdown", I have reached my beloved Normandy. Usually that lifts my mood; not this time. I am depressed. I am depressed as a moderate enthusiast for a united non-federal Europe. I am depressed as a Francophile, someone who fervently wishes France to remain France but also to succeed and to lead, not to bury itself in self-defeating nationalism and political illusions.

France now looks certain to vote against the proposed European Union constitution tomorrow. In other words, a majority of French voters will reject a treaty which was suggested by the French president, shaped largely by a former French president, and represents everything France - or at least the French elite - has sought to achieve in the past 50 years.

The European Union knows all about crises. The life of the EU is one long daisy chain of crises. But a French Non may produce a calamity - a slow-motion calamity - which dwarfs all previous euro-crises.

Eurosceptics who hate the Brussels-Strasbourg machine will rejoice at the delicious irony of a French Non. Maybe they should also reflect on the dangers. Even the single European market, which is the basis of the prosperity and future prosperity of 400 million Europeans, could be threatened.

In the past week, I have driven 3,100 kilometres, or just under 2,000 miles, from Paris to Lorraine in the north-east, down to the south and south-west and up to Normandy. The French call the Normans the Oui-nons, because, allegedly, they can never give a clear Oui or Non to anything. True to their reputation, the Normans - but also Bretons, Parisians and south-westerners - are likely to be split down the middle or maybe slightly pro-Oui tomorrow.

All other regions of France are, according to polls, planning to vote heavily for the Non. The French debate, rising to a crescendo over the past three weeks, has been bizarre. The debate - especially on the left - has brushed lightly over everything that is constitutional and new. Argument in France instead has dwelt largely on Part Three, which consists largely of a re-print of the old EU single market and single currency treaties, going back to the 1957 Treaty of Rome. The language in Part Three - "fair and free competition", open markets, free movement of goods, people and capital - has been seized on by the French far-left, and by demagogues of the French centre-left. The old gospel of Europe, going back to Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman, has been presented to voters as proof of a wicked lurch by the EU into ultra-libéralisme, hard-capitalism and Anglo-Saxon, money-obsessed, antisocial heartlessness.

In other words, a Non vote tomorrow will not just be a vote against the proposed constitution. It will be a vote against the Treaty of Rome, which has been the basis of European and French politics and prosperity for the past 47 years.

It used to be said that France had the "stupidest right" in the world. A vote for Non tomorrow would suggest that France also has the stupidest left.

The French electorate can broadly be divided into three segments. Roughly one third of votes go to the extremes of left and right, the Communists, Trotskyists, National Front and hard-line sovereigntists. These votes were guaranteed for the Non from the start.

Another one third of the electorate usually votes for the centre-right, President Chirac's political "family". These are heavily committed to the Oui camp. (Between 75 and 80 per cent say they will vote for the constitution, even in the latest polls.) That leaves roughly another third of the French electorate which generally votes to the centre-left (Socialist or Green or others). This electorate consists of fonctionnaires (civil servants), teachers, intellectuals, the professions and some public sector workers. These voters - well educated, moderate, supposedly pro-European - will decide the outcome tomorrow. Every shift in "national" opinion tracked by the polls in the past six or seven weeks - from Yes to No, back to Yes and finally to No again - has been, in fact, a shift on the centre-left. The other two voting blocs have remained virtually frozen from the start.

Many commentators will say that a French Non is a repudiation of an arrogant French and European "elite". There is an element of truth in this.

France and the EU are paying for years of top-down decision-making, with little attempt to explain, or seek popular backing, for the activities of the EU. (One might have expected well-educated French people to know what was in the Treaty of Rome, all the same.) Pro-Europeans may also try to dismiss the No vote as a protest, or cry of pain, against a stumbling centre-right government and persistent high unemployment. There is also some truth in this. Referendums in all countries tend to become plebiscites on the government in power.

Neither argument fully explains tomorrow's likely Non. The centre-left voters who will make the difference are not some down-trodden underclass. They are, many of them, people who enjoy, or approve of, the status quo in France: ie high levels of employment and generous social benefits in the public sector. This will not be a cry of pain but a defensive gesture - in my opinion a selfish and self-deluding - gesture against "free markets" and the imagined threat of an enlarged, less French-directed EU.

The French centre-left nominally moved to belief in market forces in 1983 (well before the Labour Party) under a young prime minister called Laurent Fabius. The change was never fully accepted. Statism, welfarism and protection remain the religion of many, reinforced by the anti-globalist movement and the respectability, and growing strength, of new forms of anti-capitalism among the young.

Much of the rhetoric on the French left in this campaign - even the centre-left - has resembled the nationalist, inward-looking ideology of the far right. The fundamental argument - "opening borders and free trade are a threat to jobs" - echoes loudly across from the National Front to the Trotskyists. For Algerian building workers, read Polish plumbers.

The Yes campaign has been flat and defensive. The No campaign has been ably manipulated by - among others - a no-longer-young Socialist politician, called Laurent Fabius, whose career had long been going nowhere. M. Fabius may yet win his reward and jump into pole position for the left-wing "nomination" for the presidency in 2007.

But where would that lead him? The far-left notion of a "new Europe" which "ruptures" with capitalism is silly. No other country, no other mainstream left, in Europe wants to call into question free markets, as a large part of the French left does. If M. Fabius is the next president, he will either have to turn his coat again, or lead France into some kind of statist-nationalist isolationism. Or, he might try to stab at something in between, and do enormous damage to the principle of European free trade (with potentially miserable consequences for all). On the other hand, the Socialists may be so shattered that the French right will win the presidency next time round.

Over the next two years, watch President Chirac - or other right-wing candidates - play to the French anti-constitution gallery by trying to erode the open market philososphy of the EU. Or, perhaps worse, watch them try to relaunch an "old EEC" of six cosy nations. At the very least, the EU faces a decade of drift, in which the idea of a united Europe as an economic and political counterweight to the US will slowly die. At the worst, the whole concept of one market from Ireland to Poland may fissure and fall apart.

There are plenty of reasons to be depressed.

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