Leading article: Europe must listen to the French electorate

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Genuine Europhiles will take heart from the French election result for the good and simple reason that co-operation and integration will not work unless they are based on popular endorsement expressed periodically by national electorates. No agreement, no extra measures of integration. Genuine Europhiles do not hang on every communique issued from summits in Brussels or Dutch seaside resorts. Instead, the Europe of their imagining is a popular edifice, built - necessarily gradually - on the assent of the inhabitants of this and other member countries to empirical measures to liberalise trade and movement while moving towards common-sense harmonisation of standards in tax as in employment. It cannot be a rush job.

Sunday's result in France is ambiguous in all sorts of ways but clear in this respect - a large number of French men and women are unhappy both with the prospect of a single currency and the way it is being prepared for. A pause for further thought would now be welcome, especially if it were accompanied by measures to alleviate the national sore of youth joblessness. (No one should pretend that that is going to be easy; French unemployment has as much to do with state social costs as deflation for the sake of joining the single currency.) Nonetheless, if Lionel Jospin forms a government after next weekend's run-off, he will be committed to a major change of focus in negotiations over EMU. That may scupper the project as conceived by Chancellor Kohl and the Germans. The socialists' advance should thus emphasise the wisdom of Tony Blair's warning at the Noordwijk summit last week - that there has to be more focus on "the issues that matter to the people".

There should no mistaking the radicalism of that frame of reference. There is no popular backing for a common currency in France; German misgivings are suppressed only by the suffocating hold Chancellor Kohl has on Bonn politics. Meanwhile, if the people not just of this country but of the other member states were directly consulted, scant evidence of support would be found for much of the treaty on further integration which Mr Blair, Kohl and the rest were in Holland to start negotiating. Maastricht II, as it is dubbed, is for the most part neither necessary nor wished for. Given the stance taken by the British government and the desire among other leaders to palliate Mr Blair, it now looks as if the new treaty will be a minimalist document. It will be all the better for that. Go through the clauses and mark them in terms of popular will.

Some do attract support. Under the Social Chapter, there is a balance to be struck between British labour market liberalism and Continental controls. Labour is right to make a sticking point of the national border. There clearly is a difference of view, as there should be, between this country and, say, the Dutch, Belgians and other Schengen countries (though the coherence of that group has yet to survive the accession of the Greeks) which suggests this issue should not become Euro-law. Far better to let co-operation develop piecemeal, as for example in the joint passport and customs control regime now in operation on Eurostar.

There is, without a doubt, an enervating gap between popular sentiment and the institutions of European union - a gap which the European Parliament might eventually but certainly has not yet begun to fill. It is a gap deepened whenever ministers and presidents and chancellors attend summits but fail to return full of explanation - to report back on the benefits of Europrojects. Enthusiasts for closer European co-operation often quite rightly bemoan the absence of advocacy of the benefits of membership, as when Cornish fishermen drive to protest meetings along roads partly paid for by the European regional budget. That advocacy ought also to take the form of explanation.

This is what has gone missing in France. Jacques Delors now says - in order to keep his socialist colleagues on the straight and narrow - that the common currency plan was always intended to be about social justice; that an "economic government", ie political control, was always meant to be built into the operations of the European central bank. But he has done a remarkably poor job in keeping his fellow citizens up to speed, and convincing them that French deflation really is a price worth paying.

The reason he has not done so is because the single currency has, hitherto, been a scheme of political and economic elites whose arguments are to some extent based on unproven theories. In Sarcelles and other benighted suburbs of French cities, they need more convincing. If M Jospin cannot manage, he should pull out.

As they contemplate this French result, Messrs Blair and Cook should draw two lessons. One - as if they needed it, given results in Putney and elsewhere a month ago - is the utter irrelevance of organised or ideological Euro-scepticism. The French electorate may be confused but it is in no identifiable sense anti-Europe. But what manner of Europe? The British leaders should hold hard to their expressed intent of fashioning European institutions that speak to people's lives and interests and sentiments. It would be boastful for the British to claim that the landscape of European politics has changed with the advent here of Labour. Yet even a cursory comparison between what Mr Blair brings to the party and what M Jospin or indeed the putative substitutes for Herr Kohl such as Gerhard Schroder have to offer is telling. When Labour talks about offering Europe new leadership, it is not because they have some kind of future map - such historicist pretensions have no place. The leadership Europe needs is one that understands and communicates with the people of Europe.