Neal Ascherson: Little England may be smaller, but Europe lives on

The urgent lesson is that France believes in the EU enough to challenge it

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As a British citizen, I signed an open letter begging the French to vote "Oui". But if I had been a French citizen, I would have voted "Non". I signed because the impact of the French "Non" in Britain could only be dire. It gives heart to Europhobes of right and left who want to dismantle the supranational structures of the European Union. It will close more windows in Little England, leaving it an even smaller, darker, more asphyxiating place.

As a British citizen, I signed an open letter begging the French to vote "Oui". But if I had been a French citizen, I would have voted "Non". I signed because the impact of the French "Non" in Britain could only be dire. It gives heart to Europhobes of right and left who want to dismantle the supranational structures of the European Union. It will close more windows in Little England, leaving it an even smaller, darker, more asphyxiating place.

For France, though, Sunday's vote was a much-needed explosion of liberty. Many passions burst through, some of them rational and others ugly. There was loathing of the Chirac government. There was fear for jobs as industry relocates in cheaper lands, and foreign workers ("the Polish plumber") compete to provide services. There was dislike of the neo-liberal, "American" social model, seen by many French as a betrayal of the old "social" caring principles of partnership around which the European project was built.

But above all, there was a sense that the constitution was an insult to French intelligence - all the more painful because it was prepared by complacent French statesmen. One of my French nephews told me: "I voted No because this is such a bad text. This is not a constitution at all, which should be drawn up by a democratically-elected assembly. This is just a treaty."

The incompetence of the French political class, supposedly sophisticated, is almost beyond belief. A treaty defining the new rules of the EU was necessary after the 2004 enlargement. But Giscard d'Estaing's pompous insistence on calling it a constitution was asking for trouble. All referendum campaigns get out of control, as one question bloats into a dozen unasked questions. Most of the argument was irrelevant to the constitution: the EU's free-market principles already existed. But in the "No" camp, the anti-globalising young, the old Marxists, the neo-fascist chauvinists, the Islam-haters, the decent social democrats who dread the cut-throat world of neo-liberal economics, the trade unions protecting subsidised jobs, all came together. And one emotion connected all of them: the sense of outraged democracy.

So was this a vote against Europe? Or even a vote against a "European superstate"? No, it was not. The more the French government screamed that there could be no such thing as a "No for Europe", the more I realised this was exactly how many French people I knew were going to vote. As my nephew put it, "Most French people are still in favour of a federal Europe. After all, I can be completely against our own Fifth-Republic constitution, and I am still as French as anyone else!"

True to form, British politicians have got French motives inside-out. John Redwood was only the first to crow that France would now repatriate the lost sovereignty stolen by the Brussels superstate. But this is a fatal mistake. Only the far right in France, Jean-Marie Le Pen and the Front National, think in Victorian nationalist terms like British Tories.

What most No voters were asking for is not a smaller, weaker Europe, but a different one. They are not particularly scared of the existing level of shared sovereignty and supranational authority. It's not the bridge and engines of the Titanic they want to change, but the course itself. They want a European Union set towards a more protective, social-democratic ideal of society - the ideal of the European project's first generations. A more cynical way of putting this would be to say that the French have no objection to a superstate as long as its topmost flag is a tricolour.

Will the EU unravel because of the French (and almost inevitable Dutch) No? Certainly not. This is because France, arrogantly enough, still regards the European Union as its own triumphant creation; it will try to change it but never abandon it. But the Union has been given its worst-ever shock - and a much overdue one. First of all, the age of undemocracy is over. The elites must open up. A French politician said the referendum result created "a major constitutional conflict between the pays légal (the ruling elites) and the pays réel (the people). She was right, but it's a European conflict and not just a French one.

Secondly, the vote reminds the EU that its main purpose is political rather than economic. Uncontrolled free-market capitalism is not the only way to bring peace, justice and security to 25 nations. It may be time to alter course a few degrees, in favour of state - and superstate - regulation. After all, what is the use of a Union which cannot modify policy at the wish of its members? And is this discomfort unique to France? Governments in the new member-states - Poland, Hungary - may be bullish about the transitional pains of neo-liberal policies. Their peoples would be much less so if they thought that a less ruthless transition were possible.

Some fudge must now be invented: a simple list of rules which all states can sign may replace the dead treaty. The new presidency and foreign ministry must somehow be saved. But the urgent lesson for European politicians in shock is that France has done the EU a favour. It believes in the European Union, not as a set of conventions but as a living creature strong enough to be challenged, persuaded and changed. That is what the "Non for Europe" really means.

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