Cablegate: Eu Referendum As Plebicite On Jacques Chirac And

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.




E.O. 12958: N/A

REF: A. (A) PARIS 2604
B. (B) PARIS 2516
C. (C)PARIS 2205
D. (D) PARIS 1649
E. (E) PARIS 1230


1. (SBU) France's referendum on a proposed Constitution for
the EU could be shaping up into a nationwide vote of no
confidence in Chirac and his leadership. Chirac has been
President of France since 1995, and may well be aiming to run
for a third term. For many voters across the electoral
spectrum, Chirac and those around him have come to epitomize
the failures of France's elite. The referendum offers a
large swath of voters a vehicle to express their alienation
from and resentment toward that "political class." For
center-left voters, who were "forced" to vote for Chirac in
his second round presidential run-off against extreme-right
candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002, the reluctance to "vote
for him again" by endorsing Chirac in his support of the EU
Constitution is particularly strong. In all, a fusion of
anxiety about economic conditions, resistance to specific
reform proposals, frustration at ineffective institutions,
anger at the political class, and partisan opposition to
Chirac and his party are transforming a referendum about a
Constitution for Europe into a plebiscite about Jacques
Chirac and his leadership. END SUMMARY.

2. (SBU) The French electorate is in a particularly sour and
anxious mood (reftels B and C). Opponents of the proposed
constitution cite a slew of reasons for voting against it,
many of which are not related to the constitution, but rather
to domestic political concerns. This combination threatens
to turn the May 29 referendum on the EU Constitution into a
vote of no confidence in Jacques Chirac and his Presidency.
Those who plan to vote 'no,' primarily out of domestic
political concerns, offer a variety of reasons for doing so.
Some oppose specific reform proposals of the government of
Chirac's Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin; others'
partisan allegiance opposes them to Chirac and his party;
still others -- in a way that goes beyond policy disagreement
and partisan opposition -- are deeply discontented with
Chirac's governance and with what they see as a declining
quality of life in France. This tendency cuts across
political party lines, grouping elements of mainstream
center-right and center-left voters with those further to the
right and left, and with those on the extremes subject to the
populist, xenophobic current always present on the French
political scene.

3. (SBU) The discontent that runs across the electorate, on
the far right, becomes pure populist resentment against
"them." Its focus in connection with the referendum is on
Jacques Chirac and the political class, but it quickly widens
out to include Brussels technocrats, "pointy-headed
intellectuals," immigrants, foreigners, etc. For example, in
a TV debate April 13 on the proposed Constitution, Marine le
Pen, daughter of Jean-Marie le Pen, leader of the extremist
National Front (FN) party, deploying the coded vitriol that
is the FN's stock-in-trade, derided both the center-left, and
Chirac and the center-right, for supporting the proposed
Constitution only because they were interested in "serving
the Europe of money."

4. (SBU) At a rally on April 16, Union for a Popular
Movement (UMP) party President Nicolas Sarkozy summed up the
electorate's restive mood saying, "The French feel like
turning over the table" (and added, that if they reject the
proposed Constitution they "will have turned it over on
themselves"). Across the center of the electorate,
discontent coalesces around a sense that France's
institutions are not up to the job of addressing the
country's economic and social problems and that the political
class that presides over these institutions is too complacent
and incapable of making effective use of them. The
often-heard complaint that the public education system --
which once held pride of place among the civic institutions
of The Republic -- "is crumbling," is emblematic of these
voters' deep disillusionment. If many center-right and
center-left voters, who share this feeling of being let down
by their country and its leaders, vote 'no' to express it,
the hopes of the 'yes' camp could well be bitterly
disappointed May 29.

5. (SBU) France's political class, bred in a handful of
state "grande ecoles" (like the National School of
Administration (ENA) and private, feeder institutions (such
as the Institute of Political Studies (Sciences-Po), and then
drawn into long political careers, often near the very top of
France's governmental institutions, is viewed with suspicion
by ordinary people. The "France of below" sees the "France
of above" as inaccessible, unaccountable, inbred, and
self-serving. The relatively recent practice of
"co-habitation" (president and prime minister from opposing
parties) has boosted public perception of a single elite,
blurring the distinction between left and right. Jacques
Chirac, and many of the figures closely associated with him,
such as Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin, fit the mold
of this elite to a tee. Recently, Finance Minister Herve
Gaymard was forced to resign (reftel E), for having rented a
luxurious apartment to house himself and his family at state
expense. Scandals such as this one confirm popular
suspicions that this French nomenklatura is out of touch with
the lives of ordinary people. President Chirac's evident
incomprehension of young voters' concerns during a
long-awaited television appearance April 14 (reftel A)
confirmed for many viewers the gulf between elite and public.
Those particularly resentful of this class and its
privileges, or outraged by its recent excesses, or just
disappointed by its aloofness, could well vote 'no' on May 29
to express their displeasure.

6. (SBU) At Socialist Party (PS) vote-'yes' rallies,
National Secretary Francois Hollande and supporters such as
mayor of Lille Martine Aubry, hammer away at the theme that
"2007 is the time to sanction Chirac and Raffarin." For many
center-left voters the prospect of -- again -- supporting
Jacques Chirac and the "liberal" center-right is dismaying.
Among them, the memory of May 2002 is still fresh; then, in a
second-round presidential run-off, they were "forced" to vote
for Chirac against right-wing extremist, Jean-Marie le Pen --
and they don't want to hand Chirac another "undeserved"
victory. These voters, who are not so much against the
Constitution as they are repulsed by the idea of voting again
in a way that supports Chirac, are being avidly courted by
both Chirac and the PS' pro-'yes' leadership. Focusing these
voters on affirming their support for Europe and not their
partisan opposition to Chirac and the center-right is key to
preventing the referendum from becoming a plebiscite.
Current polls, which show 'no' leading among center-left
voters by nearly 60 percent, reflect how strongly the
'sanction Chirac' feeling runs on the center-left. That the
center-left has already roundly punished Chirac and the
center-right in two nationwide elections since 2002 (for
Regional Councils and European Parliamentarians both in
2004), is further evidence of the strength and persistence of
anti-Chirac feeling.

7. (SBU) The nationwide general strike on March 10 (reftel
D), led by public sector unions revealed the range and
variety of the constituencies opposed to specific reform
proposals of the Raffarin government. Employees from the
beleaguered public health, public education and public
transportation systems, abetted by high school students,
farmers groups and clerical and staff employees of some key
ministries (including the Foreign Ministry) are intent on
voting 'no' in parochial opposition to government reform
policies that would affect them.
8. (SBU) Since President Chirac's disappointing TV
performance April 14, Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin
has emerged -- at Chirac's direction -- as the leading
spokesperson of the government's pro-'yes' campaign. In his
public statements and debate appearances, Villepin has been
insistently sounding the theme that, after the referendum,
government domestic policy will be re-energized and
re-focused because "we have heard what the French people are
telling us." This promise of committed attention to the
domestic issues that dominate voter preoccupation is,
clearly, an effort to deflect the discontented from their
intention to use the referendum as a vote of no confidence.
It remains to be seen if Villepin will be more successful
than Chirac and Raffarin have been in pulling voters'
attention away from the economic insecurities, political
dissatisfactions and social resentments -- that Chirac and
the Raffarin government have come to epitomize. Recasting
voters' current approach to the referendum -- convincing them
to consider the proposed constitution and answer the question
asked May 29 -- is key to reclaiming the referendum from the
plebiscite on Jacques Chirac and his leadership that it is
threatening to become. END COMMENT.

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