Upton-On-Line 2/6/05: French Referendum Aftermath
2nd June 2005
In this issue:
The aftermath of the French referendum on the European Constitution; and Stuart McMillan explores the NZ/Australia security relationship in an address to the NZ Institute of International Affairs.
Slamming doors shut
Upton-on-line’s normal morning routine starts with a brief dash to the local boulangerie followed by a turn past the news kiosk to pick up Le Figaro. This Monday, the morning after Sunday’s referendum on the European Constitution, the boulangerie was in business but the kiosk was closed. Its owner had gone on strike for the week. This is not unusual - small traders do go on strike in France, not against themselves but against a general dissatisfaction with the state of the universe. In this case the message read:
"In view of the proliferation of titles, DVDs, cassettes, gadgets of all kinds, inserts, ambiguous titles, the enormous weight of the supplements of journals and their extravagant thickness;
"In view of their excessive quantities and the non-payment of services relative to our sales and the size of our kiosk;
"In view of our profit margin (one of the slimmest in Europe);
"In view of the above, this kiosk will be closed from 30 May to 5 June."
Never mind if the owner was just taking a late spring holiday. It was too good an opportunity to miss. And all fittingly grumpy and in tune with the determination by French voters to overturn the plate of constitutional vegetables set before them by lecturing leaders and throw a general electoral tantrum.
With 54.9% opposed to ratification in a big turnout that had none of the apathy that so often afflicts electoral campaigns, French voters (in the words of the ultra-sovereigntist Philippe de Villiers) decided to “slam in the door in the face of a system that tries to control what we think day by day.” Despite the scale of the rejection, the consequences for France are much easier to measure than they are for Europe. The losers are obvious. The President, Jacques Chirac, demonstrated once again his ability to extract defeat from the jaws of victory. His interventions in favour of the Constitution are largely judged to have assisted its opponents. Ironically, an even bigger loser was the Socialist Party leader, François Hollande who also backed the Constitution thinking he had squared the case for a ‘oui’ off with a party referendum earlier in the year. And after a painstaking 24 year long rehabilitation following his ignominious defeat at the hands of François Mitterrand, the Constitution’s ‘father’, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing finds himself once more destined to be little more than a footnote in history.
The winners are equally obvious. Laurent Fabius emerges as the Machiavellian genius of the left. Having wrong-footed the entire leadership of the Socialist Party he was the only big name able to spend the election evening far from the television cameras. He alone had no explanations to make – the result spoke for itself. More importantly, he couldn’t really be seen gloating alongside the unsavoury list of fellow-travellers who jumped aboard his pirate ship. With a crew of Trotskyite leftists and extreme right xenophobes like Olivier Besançenot and Jean-Marie Le Pen, the man who would be President had rapidly to throw a cordon sanitaire around his reputation.
For the uncomfortable truth, as Le Monde grimly noted, is that the anti-Europeans of the left not only added their voices to those of Jean-Marie Le Pen and Philippe de Villiers; they took over some of their messages. Certain arguments of the far right took root on the hard left. There is of course nothing unusual about this as any detached reading of twentieth century European history will reveal, but it comes as a heavy charge when France’s most prestigious paper fingers self-appointed progressives with the taint of the devil.
In short, there will now be another internal paroxysm. M. Chirac’s little-appreciated (but to upton-on-line’s conventional mind, affable and competent) Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin has already fallen on his sword to be replaced by the infinitely more swashbuckling but never popularly-elected Dominique de Villepin. This sets the scene for potentially scathing exchanges with France’s most savvy politician, Nicolas Sarkozy who on the eve of the poll made a transparent attack on the President’s latest protégé by gravely insisting that only those who had submitted themselves to the French people at least once in their lives were worthy of the highest offices.
No-one, for all that, reads this as the pique of a man who wanted the Prime Minister’s job. Sarkozy has alone on the right managed to stay well clear of ground zero. While half the political establishment – left and right – has been sucked into the presidential destruction zone, M. Sarkozy has remained at his station far out to sea and stands ready to save France in due course. While vast expanses of France succumbed to the ‘non’ tide (including M. Chirac’s remote rural stronghold on the Corrèze), M. Sarkozy’s west-Paris stronghold in the Hauts-de-Seine was resolutely on line. In his Neuilly fiefdom just across the Seine from the Bois de Boulogne amidst impeccably manicured gardens and impeccably coiffured matrons, the yes vote hit a record 82.5%.
The end of French exceptionalism
But it would be too easy to conclude – as some have suggested – that the result was yet another case of the French deciding to take it out on the government and supply a party political verdict to the wrong question. Because along with M. Sarkozy’s west-Paris version of Beverley Hills, Paris proper – all twenty arrondissements, including the poorest – backed the Constitution. Paris’ socialist mayor, Bertrand Delanoe, likewise backed the treaty. The socialist ‘oui’ vote carried the day in the capital as it also managed to do in Strasbourg, the seat of the European Parliament. Again, a socialist mayor led the ‘oui’ to a decisive victory in cosmopolitan Lyon. This at the very least suggests that this may have more to do with insiders and outsiders than simply ideology.
The fact is that France’s governing elite – and the people who live in proximity to them - have, whatever their rhetoric may suggest to the contrary, come firmly to the conclusion that France can go nowhere unless it is at the heart of Europe. They also know that when you assign the drafting of its Constitution to a Frenchman and then reject it, you will have some difficulty persuading people to take you seriously. While France still has a handful of flagship companies and areas of technical excellence, it simply isn’t a world power; and Europe can only be an economic power if countries like France are prepared to see the European continent’s astonishing financial and human capital depth used more effectively.
The political leadership knows this. But it hasn’t been prepared to say what this means. In fact, it has done the opposite. In fairness so have their counterparts in many European countries. Rather than explain why breaking down barriers and protective practices within Europe will be good for the overall prosperity of the Union, France’s leaders – regardless of party - have repeatedly used Brussels as an easy scapegoat for the less palatable consequences of economic and social change. They have known full well that much French exceptionalism (for which read protectionism and go-it-alone-ism) was unsustainable; but they have preferred to blame it on Brussels, in some cases implying that they were simply going along with the best deal they could get but by no means what they were really after.
It was a dangerous tactic because at some point voters were, not unreasonably, going to conclude that if Brussels was the problem, it was time to dump it. The EU’s opportunistic detractors did too good a job. When the day came to defend the institution, they discovered that had drained their own – for once respectable – arguments of any credibility. Voters decided to dump on the constitution for reasons which had little to do with the fine print and everything to do with economic failure that they have been tutored to attribute to Brussels and European enlargement.
Polls indicate that unemployment and general insecurity featured highly in the minds of voters. That is hardly surprising. Only four EU countries top France’s towering rate of unemployment – Greece, Spain, Slovakia and Poland. This is scarcely flattering company for a country that, in terms of its natural and human endowments could effortlessly do so much better. French exceptionalism has come to mean exceptional failure.
After several months of kid gloves treatment on the part of Brussels and member states alike in the hope of clearing the field of any possible source of parochial paranoia, the massive ‘non’ vote has enabled people to start speaking their minds again. One of the most vitriolic is the former EU Commissioner Frits Bolkestein who had the misfortune to try to defend the idea – enshrined in the EU’s founding treaty – that there should not only be a single market for services on paper but also in reality. The Bolkestein Directive (crudely termed the Frankenstein Directive by populist politicians) became a cause célèbre which no-one had read but everyone hated. Mr Bolkestein has now unburdened himself in these terms:
“A single market for services promises to create millions of jobs. The directive creates not a single right that does not already exist. The freedom to sell services across Europe is one of the basic freedoms contained in the Treat of Rome. But that freedom is frustrated by many bureaucracies. Hence the directive is intended to deal with petty but awkward obstacles…
“Martin Schultz, president of the European Socialist party in the European Parliament at Strasbourg, has said that if the services directive were passed unchanged, it would mean the destruction of the European social model. How social is an economic model that throws up 12% unemployment as in Germany or 10% as in France? Mr Chirac likes to sneer. He told the east European newcomers to shut up about Iraq. He belittled British jobs growth. But surely the French unemployed prefer small jobs to no job at all. There was a time when the Bonn-Paris axis moved the EU forward. The present couple, Mr Schröder and Mr Chirac are a drag…” ( Financial Times, 31st May)
An even more withering judgment was offered by Jacob Arfwedson and Sylvain Charat, the latter, Director of Studies at the Paris-based Eurolibnetwork and thus one of those collector’s pieces, a French liberal:
“The strong rejection of the treaty highlights the final throes of a regime reaching the end of its socialist tether, largely thanks to Mr Chirac. Elected in 1995 and again in 2002, the French president is emblematic of all things wrong in France. He has done everything to bolster interventionism and support for public sector lobbies, scorning anything smacking of free markets. He even recently managed to denounce liberalism as being “worse than communism” without raising eyebrows inordinately. French EU policy is predominantly concerned with its own influence and the common agricultural policy; the rest is silence. Internationally, Mr Chirac has abundantly proven the one constant in his career: a sustained critique of western democracy and capitalism, coupled with excuses and support for dictatorships in the name of cultural relativism.”
Perhaps it’s not surprising that this excoriating attack also surfaced in the Financial Times. But the Think Tank’s President is Alain Madelin, an authentic and respected source of political conscience on the right. The right may have held together during the campaign better than the left, but as the consequences of France’s ‘non’ start to demand an alternative policy, the tensions will build.
The same applies to the left where an entire leadership class has been disowned by its core constituency. Having spent the campaign becoming less and less veiled in its contempt for Fabius, its leaders have now more humble pie before them than is reasonably digestible. Needless to say, the hard left has already portrayed them as collaborationists – leftists who threw their lot in with the forces of evil (i.e. liberals and Eurocrats). The Communist Party leader, Marie-George Buffet, has excitedly pronounced that “we are in the midst of a popular uprising which evokes the great moments of the Popular front or May ‘68”. This is scarcely going to be music to the ears of the social democratic mainstream that has just been disowned by the overwhelming majority of its constituency.
What might it mean for Europe – and the rest of the world?
While France descends into a reasonably predictable period of internal recriminations, the wider consequences for Europe and the world at large are harder to predict. It seems highly likely that the Constitution as it stands is dead. But constitutional rigor mortis may be a rather less final thing than its biological counterpart. After all, the Constitution didn’t have to cover all the ground that it did – it didn’t even have to be called a Constitution. Only its size and portentousness made it seem a necessary candidate for plebiscitary endorsement – and even then not in every case. It would not be too difficult to cannibalise and serve up in less contentious chunks for endorsement by national parliaments. Europe has rarely moved forward in neat, tidy steps and there’s no reason why it has to now. No-one need lose any sleep that the EU will suddenly cease functioning.
On the other hand, the French referendum has unleashed some pretty visceral currents of thinking and the extent to which they spread may be much more the long term worry. While there was obviously a significant element of ‘up-the-leadership’ in the ‘non’ vote, some voters clearly wanted to call a halt to some of the forces of integration, plurality and openness that are associated with the Union. Le Figaro conducted its own ‘voyage into the France of the noes’ and detected some currents that should give anyone interested in Europe pause for thought. Here are some verbatim verdicts from voters:
“They told us that the ‘oui’ was a vote in favour of peace. I think, rather, that it would have brought us economic warfare.”
“I’m for a flexible Europe but not for a fusion of everyone together. What will we do when the Catalonians, the Bretons or the Flemish demand their independence? Nothing, because Brussels will come down in their favour based on rights that we’ve transferred to the Union”
“I fear the emergence of a new sectarianism in which you’d claim at one and the same time to be Breton and European but not French.”
“Each country has to find its own way. I’d prefer an authoritarian French leader to lead any reforms rather than have them imposed by Brussels which would just cause chaos.”
Random, anecdotal quotes prove nothing. But France offers more fertile ground for intolerance and xenophobia than is compatible with being one of the foundation stones of the European project. Those dislocated by change in parts of Eastern Europe and Germany – change stemming from much tougher political and economic realities – could be forgiven for turning on their leaders if the French have started to talk this way. Europe has been a space of peaceful and constructive engagement for over half a century now and it is sometimes too easy take that for granted. It shouldn’t be. In the absence of strong leadership, sclerotic economic mis-management can have real political consequences.
Upton-on-line has observed a less than happy Anglo-Saxon trait that involves immoderate delight when the EU gets into trouble – especially the Latin portion of it. Brussels is always good for a horror story and apocryphal after dinner yarns. But the EU has also been a means of forging a very wealthy single market – and one that has had to steadily open itself to the world. It has also been a mechanism for forcing some European countries to tidy up their acts. It is the EU that has revealed the extent to which countries (like Greece and Italy) have generated fictitious national financial statements. It is the EU that has made the Euro possible placing monetary policy largely beyond political manipulation and thereby putting the pressure of economic adjustment on the need for long overdue structural reforms that can only in turn benefit those who trade with Europe.
It is clear from the French referendum result that any lingering hopes of a single mega-state, federal Europe are dead in the ground. But it is also clear that much less grandiose – and valuable - elements of inter-European co-operation that had once seemed absolutely cast in stone could yet be vulnerable to a spasm of nationalist introspection. Whether that happens will depend on the extent to which leaders are prepared to level with their electorates and take responsibility for what they sign up to rather than take refuge in numbers and use the EU as a shield against domestic dissent.
If the EU were a spacecraft you would have to conclude that it has burnt through quite a lot of its heat-protective layers. It is also in the process of burning off quite a large stock of political leaders and the institutional memory they should be able to bring to bear. The future may be less predictable than we have all thought.
Footnote from the Franche-Comté
In case fears about dissolving national identity seem far-fetched, Le Figaro reports (1 June) that one bunch of unhappy campers in the eastern region of France known as the Franche-Comté is organising a campaign to reunite its territory with Switzerland! To anyone who has driven through the area, the idea is not totally far-fetched. The neat little farmhouses look all of a piece with their Swiss counterparts. As the Franche-Comté Federalist Party points out, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t also enjoy Switzerland’s 4-5% unemployment rate. (Upton-on-line wonders how, for all that, the strike rates compare). Switzerland is a confederation of cantons which has from time to time extended its borders. Geneva was the most recent defector from France. With 200 kilometres of common border, the Franche-Comté would fit very nicely into Switzerland. As Figaro ruminated, we’re only waiting now for the Basque Country to join up with Spain and the Pas-de-Calais to join up to England. After all, Calais was English until 1558 and with the Channel Tunnel can now claim physical contiguity. The present Queen Elizabeth II is, amongst other things, still the Duke of Normandy though forced to exercise this title from the Channel Islands. Perhaps Calais could join Jersey as a tax haven and become a sort of Hong Kong…
Some hens’ teeth wisdom on the Trans-Tasman security relationship
Because New Zealanders consider that they live in the geo-political security equivalent of a black hole (in which the normal laws of power politics have been suspended), public debate rarely ventures into the realm of security. A welcome glimpse of the rest of the universe came to light recently when Stuart McMillan addressed the NZ Institute of International Affairs.
He spoke on “Australian perceptions of New Zealand and Australian defence and security”. After rehearsing the long history that spans the ANZUS falling out through to the genuine thaw that accompanied New Zealand’s contribution in East Timor, McMillan turned to on-going Australian doubts in these terms:
“…there have been occasions in which Australia believed New Zealand had agreed to a military contribution but the political process became unstuck somewhere. It would be unwise on the part of NZ for this to happen often…
So where does this leave the defence and security relationship at present.
I have already mentioned that Paul Dibb has described NZ as a strategic liability to Australia. I think NZ has to find some way of countering this view of NZ.
Similarly another view has to be tackled. After the New Zealand decision to scrap the Skyhawks Hugh White said: “At last it’s official. Australia and New Zealand are going separate ways on strategic policy. Australians can stop worrying about New Zealanders getting a free ride… most New Zealanders do not even want to be on our bus.” It was not being said in an accusatory way, but more as a way of finding a basis from which the security relationship could move forward. It is not the official position of the New Zealand Government. Again, I think something has to be done to counter this view.
My own opinion is that the New Zealand Prime Minister or a senior minister ought to give a considered view of the country’s strategic thinking to a knowledgeable strategic audience in Australia. I am sure that it would be listened to hard. We should spell out what New Zealand’s assessment of the region is. This should not be used as an opportunity to preach but to make a serious contribution to thinking about the region. Possibly we wisecrack too often, ask to be excused because we are small, or slide away into philosophical debates about how security should be defined. The last course is ultimately a cop-out. If we seriously believe that Australia has got its reading of the region wrong we should not be afraid to challenge it and give our evidence. Of course there are niceties about how this should be done so that we do not appear to be taking sides in a domestic Australian debate or criticising Australia but these things can be managed. That’s what diplomats are for.
It should be noted here that when she was in Sydney addressing the Trans-Tasman Business Council last year Helen Clark had the question put to her by Neville Wran, a former premier of New South Wales about the criticism made in Australia that New Zealand was not pulling its weight in defence. In reply the Prime Minister cited, in considerable detail, New Zealand’s military involvement in various parts of the world and drew the conclusion that “our record is second to none”. Interestingly enough, there was huge applause at the end of her reply from an audience predominately Australian. Neville Wran commented on the audience “obviously a majority of people agree with you.”
McMillan broaches the ultimate strategic nightmare issue for Australia – conflict over Taiwan – in these terms
"Another aspect of where things are at present is that it seems more likely that Australia will continue to participate in coalitions of the willing. Any conflict between China and Taiwan would test Australia’s willingness to fight alongside the US against China. Australia has some conventionally powered submarines that the US would probably like to be able to use. But for Australia to go to war against China might be more than even a loyal ally of the US, as Australia is, could tolerate. The tension between China and Taiwan might never come to war. Let us hope that it does not. But there is undoubtedly a dilemma for Australia. Just where it would leave NZ is another question."
Finally, McMillan has something to say about the divergence between Australia and New Zealand’s respective national identities and security stances. It is the biggest issue for kiwis to think about – if ever NZ politicians ever decide to take a more than cursory interest in engaging public debate on these issues. Here is his conclusion:
"Lastly, let me dwell on the questions of national identity. First, Australia. I think that Australia has developed a strong sense of national identity and self confidence. The logic of its defence position appears to have led it to a fairly wholehearted support for many positions taken by the US, including the 2003 war in Iraq. It is in the nature of things that a smaller partner will make much more effort to attract the attention of the larger partner than the other way around. Nevertheless, I am not personally convinced that should a problem arise between Australia and the US, that the US will remember all the loyalty it has had in the past. I might be mistaken but I think Australia has yet to feel the wrath of the US. Of course it may be the case that successive Australian Governments manage the American relationship in such a way that it does not happen. Group thinking develops in Washington and everyone else is expected to fall into line. I will be interested to see how Australia develops after there is a major security conflict between Australian interests and those of the United States.
I turn to New Zealand. This country’s sense of national identity is going to be more complicated. The bicultural elements have yet to play themselves out in relation to the European culture and to the multicultural society NZ has become. On top of that is the strain of what Colin James calls Pacific-isation – by which is meant the influence of the Pacific islands in New Zealand society and culture. Probably that is inevitable, given the demographics. I must confess that I do not understand how all those things will affect New Zealand’s foreign and security policies. I would have thought that now was a good time to help enunciate policies which make it clear where New Zealand’s national interests lie. One of those national interests is to maintain a good relationship with Australia including a good security relationship."
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