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Upton-on-line: France’s Allergic Reaction To EC


Diaspora Edition

21st April 2005

Special issue on France’s allergic reaction to Europe

In this issue

France discovers a new way of putting itself at the centre of Europe by threatening to derail the new European Constitution; the Father of the Constitution, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing plans his own apotheosis; and French farmers are given holidays paid for by the taxpayer.

Planning for defeat

A couple of years ago, upton-on-line watched a very funny movie about the fall of France in 1940. The story line revolved around the rescue of a distinguished Polish nuclear physicist from the approaching Nazis. But that was just the backdrop for an hilarious tapestry of domestic intrigues, political machinations and even a murder cover-up as the political elite scrambled to stay out of reach of the advancing Germans. The film seemed to be a succession of extremely good lunches in ever-more southerly locations as fleeing politicians, functionaries and celebrities remonstrated over the state of affairs before folding their napkins, donning hats and scarves and diving into waiting motorcars. That France has come to humorous terms with the ignominy of 1940 shows, at the very least, a certain sophistication.

A similar sense of impending calamity swirls around the current referendum on the European Constitution. As the hour glass runs down towards a late May poll, the tide seems to sweep inexorably out. With over 60% in favour at the time the referendum was announced by President Jacques Chirac, the ‘oui’ camp has steadily lost traction to the ‘non’ camp which is now stubbornly holding a clear 6-10% lead. Political leaders are gravely addressing all manner of (no doubt excellent) lunches and dinners before being swept off in their cavalcades. There’s almost a sense of excitement that the Brussels express has been de-railed. France has managed to make itself once again the centre of European attention –though not quite in the way its founding fathers had hoped.

It must be stressed that this is no crude “Up the Republic, Down with Brussels” affair. The range of (mutually contradictory) reasons for both supporting and rejecting the constitution is bewildering. The far left is opposing it because it will entrench something called ultra-liberalism. The normally pro-market employers’ federation is supporting it because, they argue, the proposed Constitution is all that stands between France and “ultra-liberalism”. Even though the Constitution is supposed to facilitate greater integration, the embattled ‘oui’ camp is spending hours highlighting all the provisions that would permit France to say ‘non’ to Brussels.

Laurent Fabius, a former Socialist Prime Minister and presidential hopeful, has cunningly elaborated a theory that voting ‘non’ is what you do if you’re a true believer in Europe. While the current socialist leader, François Holland, has staked his career on a ‘oui’ vote (having managed to pull off a party referendum in favour of the stance), M. Fabius is free to roam about the china shop smashing the constitutional furniture in the name of a much deeper and more ambitious vision of Europe than that presently on offer. This vision, existing at the level of rhetoric, is safely beyond any possibly scrutiny.

Then there is what might be termed the canard of Turkey. President Chirac is in favour of Turkish entry but has had to spend his time reassuring nervous supporters that the Constitution has been specially written to make it very difficult for them ever to get in. Meanwhile, the most popular politician of the right, Nicolas Sarkozy, who wants Chirac’s job is busily campaigning for a ‘oui’ on the basis that the referendum will only be carried if there is a clear understanding that France’s leaders have firmly set their faces against Turkish entry. In this, he is in league with the Constitution’s drafter, former French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who has bluntly stated that the Turks aren’t Europeans.

In short, the ‘non’ camp wants a ‘non’ in the name of being both more pro-Europe and less pro-Europe with a large dash of overt protectionism and undertones about keeping the Turks at bay. The ‘oui’ camp, by contrast, is campaigning on the basis that voting ‘oui’ makes it easier to say ‘non’ in Brussels and wishing Turkey was just something you eat with assorted delicious jellies rather than a country whose citizens could one day have more seats in the European Parliament than any other country. And in the case of the two major parties, the most ambitious pretenders to the throne have much to gain should their leaders stumble all the while being able to protest their undying belief in the European Union as being the only motivation for their actions.

If the strongest reasons for voting ‘oui’ are negative reasons, and the most ambitious and effective political figures would gain from a ‘non’vote, it isn’t hard to understand why the negative vote is consolidating rapidly.

A constitution for all seasons

One thing is clear. Few voters will ever get to read the Constitution even if they try to. It is virtually unreadable. Struggling out of the Métro one morning, upton-on-line was gratified to take what he thought was a give-away tabloid from a nice woman who didn’t seem to be doing much business. The 28 pages of newsprint turned out to be the dense text of the Treaty to Establish a Constitution for Europe, thoughtfully provided by the French parliament. Having struggled with it manfully, upton-on-line is quite clear that whatever reasons French voters may have for opposing the Constitution, they will have little or nothing to do with its text. It is impossible to believe that anyone other than an experienced proof reader or a constitutional lawyer would ever venture into this labyrinth.

It covers everything. Nothing has been omitted. Alongside the vital recital of institutions and powers, there are clouds of good intentions and reassurances framed in elusively general terms. The right of workers to annual holidays (of indeterminate length), a high (but otherwise unspecified) level of environmental protection, a high (but once again unspecified) level of consumer protection. Exchange programmes for young workers get a special reference. Social cohesion is promised through unspecified policies to reduce regional differences in rural areas, zones undergoing industrial transition and zones afflicted by “natural or demographic handicaps” (the latter includes the entire continent).

There are special articles to intone support for farming and fishing, culture, distance learning and the “physical and moral integrity of sportspeople” to cull just a few examples. European tourism operators will no doubt be pleased to know that the Constitution envisages that the Union will promote the exchange of good tourism practices by member states. Upton-on-line is uncertain whether this garrulous detail was the work of officials who took a punt that this was the best chance they’d ever get to make themselves constitutionally impregnable, or the sum total of tactical retreats by drafters buying-off hostile lobby groups.

The result, in theory, means that anyone trying to defend the Constitution should never be lost for an answer. But when President Chirac decided to launch his ‘oui’ campaign by means of a televised studio discussion with 80 odd young people asking some very direct – but often completely irrelevant – questions, his audience seemed completely uninterested in his attempts to quote chapter and verse.

The diagnosis according to Bavarez

Neither did they warm to the President’s other tactic of exhorting them not to be afraid of the future (a gambit borrowed unsuccessfully from the recently deceased Pope’s lexicon). It didn’t seem to matter what he said. Certainly, the event – trumpeted as being daring and innovative in a country more used to respectful interviews behind elaborate ormolu embellished writing tables – had no impact on the polls. Whatever is gnawing away at the soul of the body politic, it appears not be the text of the Constitution.

At which point, enter Nicolas Bavarez. Bavarez is an economist who has become the most biting and mordent interpreter of French national malaise. In a brilliant interview with Le Figaro (which has – along with Le Monde - consecrated incredible space and resources to showcasing the opinions of scores of thinkers across the entire spectrum of opinion), Bavarez placed the French loss of confidence in the context of wider European currents. (Le Figaro, Tuesday 22nd March) He identifies, first, the contemporaneous conclusion of four grand cycles:

- The conclusion of the era of global colonisation between the 16th and 20th centuries;

- The close of the ideological struggle between democracy and its various totalitarian opponents and the opening of a new ground for opposition with religion, specifically, Islam;

- The end of the Cold War and the loss of a visible and immediate need for the US security guarantee; and

- The end of the era of big-government, Keynesian economic management.

The upshot, in Bavarez’s view, is a series of voids into which Europe is being sucked:

- A demographic void, with the loss of 54 million citizens forecast over the next 45 years;

- A strategic void caused by the re-deployment elsewhere of US troops and the absence of a common security policy to replace them;

- An institutional void caused by the lack of popular legitimacy attaching to many institutions of the European Union;

- An economic and social void created by low economic growth and high unemployment in most large EU economies (with some exceptions like the UK); and

- A scientific void caused by the flight to date of 400,000 European researchers to the USA.

In short, he maintains, Europe has failed to come to grips with the dramatic transformations of both capitalism and democracy at the beginning of a new century. Bavarez lays Europe’s state of clinical depression largely at the feet of economic failure which has left Europe at the mercy of the American-Chinese business cycle. But he is also withering about the failure of the European states to forge a common geo-political strategy particularly in respect of relations with the USA. “The lesson,” he says, “is that Europe must be unified and coherent if it wishes to modify the unilateral swerves and passions of American democracy in its imperial phase”. And as for having Turkish accession on the agenda at the same time, Bavarez says it “puts in the spotlight the confusion between the European project and the absurdities of a technocratic way of functioning that lavishes infinite effort on refining procedures but never manages to challenge the ends to which they are to be applied.”

The prescription?

Well after all that gloom one might have expected that Bavarez too was opposed to the Constitution – and there can be no doubt that he will have done nothing to inspire its supporters. But like so many in their camp, he manages to find reasons why despite everything, on balance, he supports it. As he fairly points, it is hard to see why France – which has no alternative project to offer - should make itself the origin of a European level crisis by voting ‘non’. Much of his prescription has the very flavour President Chirac is hastening to assure his fellow citizens will be kept at bay by the Constitution: liberalisation of labour laws, the reversal of population decline through immigration and so on. His call for a powerful Europe that is not prepared to renounce the use of force in grappling with the enemies of liberty will also no doubt frighten the horses. It is a prescription that, at least for the moment, seems beyond the vision of any contemporary French politician.

But it is Bavarez’s big sweep that attracts upton-on-line – and which is almost wholly absent from the empty rhetoric that dominates the political arena. Here is how he closes:

“The Europe of the 21st century resembles that of the 13th century: it is dominated by the United States and by Asia as it once was by the Chinese and Muslim civilisations. But it is possessed of a history and resources which, exposed to the tension between the common values and the competing interests of the peoples of its member States, can enable it to invent new political forms like democracy and capitalism to which it recently gave birth despite the long spell of backwardness that had previously persisted.”

In its most desperate moments over the last 1500 years, Europe has never lacked pockets of innovation and experimentation. One suspects that Bavarez and others believe that making the Constitution operational with a clear geo-political vision and grass roots legitimacy would render much of the verbiage lifeless and irrelevant. Whether there are the leaders capable of pulling off that feat looks very uncertain.

Is there a moral in this for New Zealanders?

At least one. That is, if we’re going to play around with our constitutional arrangements, we’d be best to do so in the face of a real, grass roots based desire for change, preferably driven by real dysfunctionality rather than the whims of an elite. The process, furthermore, has to be insulated from concurrent dissatisfaction with other problems. Europe does need to sort out its ramshackle body of treaties and procedures. But in the absence of a process that has some anchor in popular legitimacy, the roll out of national referendums looks set to run into heavy weather as voters punish their national leaders for all manner of things that have nothing to do with the Constitution.

A second lesson might be that anything of a constitutional nature has to be able to be expressed in terms that are universally comprehensible. That argues for simplicity and clarity, something that lies forever beyond reach in the tens of thousand of words that have coagulated in Europe’s omnibus treaty.

Should New Zealanders be concerned about Europe’s difficulties? They certainly should. It is a hugely rich place with vast potential for all its institutional sclerosis. It is the civilisational wellspring of the overwhelming majority of New Zealand culture and thinking (and that extends, through the incidence of colonisation, to the indigenous people as much as it does to later arrivals). New Zealand’s cultural fluencies are not uniquely British simply because Britain has never been hermetically sealed off from events on the continental peninsular that is the European mainland. Understanding those linkages remains important. Given its cultural diversity and largely benevolent motivation in the world it can only be to the advantage of a small isolated outpost state that European values can be successfully projected beyond its borders.

Taking the shine off a shrine

There will be all sorts of frayed reputations and disappointed luminaries if France rejects the Constitution. None more so than its author, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. While Giscard is serenely predicting a 52% ‘oui’ vote (based, one can only conclude, on astrological grounds at this point) France’s 78 year old living treasure has not had an entirely ripple-free campaign of it. Normally associated with Apollonian pronouncements from on high, unsullied by intrigue or bile, VGE (as he is cheekily known) helped nobody’s cause by managing to be overheard late at night on a railway platform telling a socialist deputy that the problem with M. Chirac was that he simply wasn’t a European!

For someone of such austere grandeur, it seemed a little mean-spirited. After all, someone who has occupied every conceivable cushioned nook in the French pantheon (and there are rather a lot of them) should surely be beyond such venom (and to be pronounced a non-European, even by ‘non’ voters, is like being accused of unnatural behaviour).

Be that as it may, there is more at stake here than just a mere transient reputation. For, as Le Figaro observed in an unusually arch little piece, the Father of the Constitution has been thinking of enshrining his labours in bricks and mortar. Having changed his name to inherit his uncle’s title d’Estaing, (acquired by the same uncle only in 1923 thanks to a special decree of the Conseil d’Etat), VGE has recently announced the acquisition of a noble seat to match the noble name: in short, he has purchased from the local Council, the Chateau d’Estaing in a remote corner of the Aveyron in south central France.

A 15th century pile, the chateau’s acquisition has caused much smirking in a country that, whatever it says about fraternity and legality, has managed to bestow on the former M. Giscard not only a noble handle but the appellations Sage and Immortel – the somewhat immodest titles conferred on those who have become members of the Conseil Constitutionel and the Academie Francaise (as VGE has). There is nothing left for the new lord of the manor to aspire to but become the Thomas Jefferson of Europe with the Château d’Estaing becoming the trans-Atlantic equivalent of Monticello. The new châtelain is already planning for his constitutional immortality, having announced that while he may keep a couple of rooms as a modest pied à terre, his real object is to have the château become a centre for conferences, concerts, cultural events and – the place where his archives as President of the European Convention will be carefully guarded for the benefit of future scholars.

It would be cruel indeed if such dreams of posthumous greatness were dashed on the rocks of public ignorance and political intrigue. No convention, no grateful European people, no pilgrimages to the Chateau d’Estaing. Perhaps its new proprietor should have listened to Georges Pompidou’s advice to Jacques Chirac when he, in the late 1960s, also acquired a chateau: “Those who claim to be in politics arrange things so they don’t own a chateau. Unless, that is, it has been in the family since at least the reign of Louis XV.”

A most uncommon agricultural policy

Southern hemisphere farmers have long been dismissive of the billowing subsidies that support European farmers, drain European taxpayers’ pockets and wreak havoc in world markets by subsidising the export of surpluses. But few in their wildest dreams would have believed possible Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin’s latest rural sweetener. At a recent farming summit he announced that the French Government would spend between €50-€100 million a year paying farmers to have a holiday. Farmers were working too hard, he intoned. They didn’t get decent holidays from one year to the next. So, as evidence of the solidarity all French folk feel for the soil, the Government had decided to pay farmers enough to enable them to get replacement workers in for at least 10 days a year.

Perhaps New Zealand farmers could queue up as relievers to get themselves a working holiday in rural France. It would be some modest compensation for all the hardship caused by French agricultural protectionism. But it would mean some language night classes: French cows don’t respond to Anglo-Saxon curses and Gallic dogs can go positively feral if sworn at in the wrong argot.

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