Crisis for Europe as France rejects EU constitution by huge majority

John Lichfield
Monday 30 May 2005 00:00

France has resoundingly rejected the proposed European Union constitution, plunging the EU into crisis and French politics into confusion.

France has resoundingly rejected the proposed European Union constitution, plunging the EU into crisis and French politics into confusion.

The result of the referendum was a massive 56 per cent for the "no", against 44 per cent for the "yes", according to Dominique de Villepin, the Interior Minister. An unusually high turnout of 70 per cent of the 42 million voters had briefly raised hopes that the great legion of "undecided" might still tip the outcome to the "yes".

But the results confirmed the predictions of opinion polls that a majority of French voters would repudiate all mainstream parties and plunge the EU into one of the deepest crises in its history. The French "no" is likely to encourage a Dutch "no" on Wednesday.

Rejection by a large, founding member state at the heart of Europe will, in effect, kill the proposed constitution stone dead. This would, at the least, force the enlarged 25-nation union to stumble on with institutions and rules designed for the original club of six. But last night in their initial reactions, EU leaders urged the continuation of the treaty's ratification process.

At worst, many pro-European politicians fear that the French "no" ­ rooted in a surge of protectionist, anti-free-market feeling and fear of eastern European competition on the French left ­ could destroy Europe's ambitions to speak with one political voice and provoke a gradual unwinding of the Europe-wide single market.

President Jacques Chirac, in a brief address to the nation, said last night that the result would make it "difficult to defend French interests in Europe". He urged the country to unite behind him, "with one aim in mind ­ the defence of French national interests". Immediately after the result, other politicians close to M. Chirac tried to present him as the only person now capable of "reuniting" France and representing the French people, as the EU tries to pick up the pieces.

Their ­ and his ­ comments possibly presage an attempt by M. Chirac to "change sides" and reposition himself as the spokesman for French anger towards the EU. The former socialist finance minister Dominique Strauss Kahn lashed out at "demagogues" in his own party who had played "disgracefully on the fears of the French people".

The former socialist treasurer Henri Emmanuelli ­ a leading campaigner for the "no" vote ­ said France had "reasserted the primacy of popular sovereignty over the plans of apparatchiks and cabals". He said the vote would lead to a new, "socialist Europe".

The referendum result, which last night brought calls for M. Chirac's resignation, also seems certain to lead to a period of blood-letting in French politics and, conceivably, a period of sustained social unrest. Rejection of the constitution ­ first suggested by M. Chirac and largely negotiated by a French ex-president ­ will make M. Chirac, 72, the lamest of ducks in the final two years of his second term. There could even be a period of turbulent "street politics", with increased social demands by a triumphant hard and romantic left.

The unpopular centre-right Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, is likely to be fired by President Chirac today or tomorrow. His likely successor could be M. de Villepin ­ a never-elected, classic scion of the French administrative elite. It was difficult to see how this choice would calm the tensions fuelled by a rumbustious, passionate, and often dirty, referendum campaign.

As Europe reacted to the size of the "no" vote, M. Chirac's European ally, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, stressed that the referendum result did not mean the end of the Franco-German partnership. Like other EU leaders, he stressed that "the referendum result is a blow for the constitutional process, but not the end of it".

In Brussels, the European Commission president, Jose Manuel Barroso, said: "All 25 member states must express their view. We can't just take those of one or two countries."

It has been a strangely British kind of referendum campaign. Traditionally, the French are regarded as a country of idealists and abstract thinkers; the British as a nation of "what's-in-it-for-us" pragmatists.

High-flown idealism about Europe, or even historical or strategic thinking about the importance of EU enlargement and European east-west re-unification, hardly got a mention. The debate in both "yes'' and "no" camps focused almost entirely on the narrow, immediate interests of France.

Most of the argument on the centre-left ­ the key, swing electorate in every opinion poll ­ ignored what was genuinely new in the constitution (an EU council president and foreign minister, more influence for the European and national parliaments). The left seemed transfixed instead by the language of the original treaties, carried over word for word into the new text.

Words like "free and fair competition" and "free movement of goods, people and capital" were presented by "no" campaigners of the left as the new gospel of Anglo-Saxon, "ultra-libérale", heartless capitalism, rather than the old religion of the EEC, EC and EU going back to 1957.

It is this resurgence of anti-market feeling ­ on the French centre-left, as well as the left ­ which will make a French "no" so dangerous.

For 47 years the EU has been built on a creative ambiguity. Free marketeers could believe that it was all about trade and competition and increased prosperity. Advocates of a "political Europe" could believe that it was all about creating a powerful, united EU with a strong voice in the world.

Until now, French socialists have been persuaded to go along with the liberalism of the EU on the grounds that it would make a stronger Europe, capable of "defending the European model" against the US and the Far East. When there was an EU of 10 or 15 nations, and when the free market and competition rules were unevenly applied, there seemed little for French socialists to fear in Brussels.

The enlargement of the EU to 25 nations and the stricter application of the rules has alarmed many French people.

The victory for the "no" will increase pressure in France ­ on left and right ­ for a multi-layer Europe. Even President Chirac may be tempted in his remaining two years to push for a return to the old, cosy six-nation EEC core, which would protect France's high-tax, high-protection social model. How the Europe-wide market could survive such a lurch to "protectionism in six nations" (even assuming that the other five wanted to go along) is uncertain.

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