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Democracy, A New Idea in Europe

After 55% French voters rejected the EU constitution on May 29, the history of both France’s Fifth Republic and the 50-year old EU process is now at a turning point. Which may not be for the worse, despite warnings by French elites of a descent to hell. It all depends on the ability of a united European left-wing force to rebuild itself and counterpropose a new project.

Judging from the parties improvised in the rainy streets of Paris and the depressed looks of most elected officials interviewed on TV on that fateful night of Sunday, May 29—after an unexpectedly high number (55%) of French voters turned down the EU Constitution submitted to them in a referendum most politicians now think President Chirac should never have held—one old paradox could very well prove right: that a NO can be more positive than a YES, or that a constructive NO can indeed win against an enslaved YES.

The heavy, 489-article Constitution, rather short on social rights and the unconditional defense of public service, outlines a legal framework for a politically united EU, from economic decision-making to fiscal “leveling,” and from immigration policies to the vague yet strongly put forward “fundamental human rights” of European citizens. After a harsh campaign mixing the usual propaganda with many real-life issues, what has been rejected is this Constitution’s compliance with the low-inflation, high-unemployment, pro-financial market monetary policies fashioned in Brussels for the last ten years by European officials and the leaders of the EU’s strikingly independent (from any institutional or popular control) Central Bank, all done in the best tradition of 1980s Reaganomics. Fear of higher unemployment, rage against a distant, technocratic EU government, and reluctancy to give up national decision power seem to have collided with a very Franco-French settling of records against Chirac and his right-wing cabinet in triggering the overwhelming rejection.

Everything is unprecedented about this referendum: never before had several factions of the left been more at war with each other than against the right (Socialists defending the yes vote were bitterly fighting against their old friends from the same party as well as from Green and Trotskyite parties); never before had the famously undemocratic (if not mostly bureaucratic) EU construction process made room for such a directly democratic (and utterly out of control) phenomenon; and never before had the project of joining forces for the sake of it and at all social cost (which is what the 25-member EU is about) been so brutally and interestingly questioned—i.e., What’s the point of being “bigger” than the U.S., more powerful than China, and more competitive than both of them, if it’s at the expense of the European model of the welfare state and social solidarity? This seems to be the conclusion drawn by most defenders of the no vote. Even though it is too early to forecast the actual effects of such a political earthquake, apart from a halt in the European project and a long-term institutional crisis in France, at least five lessons can already be learned from the tidal wave of NOs on May 29, 2005.

1. Democratic representation in France, and in many neighboring countries, is at its lowest point since the 1960s, maybe since World War II. Parliaments, labor unions, and the traditional parties have lost touch with their respective constituencies. They have been losing their popular legitimacy as their political leverage narrowed in the face of freemarket forces, and at the same time been advocating a Blair-like “third way” without even daring to call it by its name. The gap between democratic institutions and the herds of scattered voters is now official: if submitted to ratification in Parliament (as was wisely chosen by most other EU member states), the new Constitution would have been easily adopted in France too—the internal Socialist Party referendum held in 2004 in preparation for this one gave a 59% victory to the yes.

2. Show-business democracy loves old-style populism. When confronted with a text and actual issues rather than with individual candidates easy to turn into stars (or bad guys), the electoral process, because it is stages and inspired by the media, gives way to even more lies, caricatures, and demagogy… alas! Watching on TV official defenders of the no vote offering a selective and deliberately inaccurate reading of this Constitution (to boost their troubled political careers, as was the case with Laurent Fabius, ex-Premier and now number one Socialist opponent to the text) and advocates of the yes vote blackmailing citizens by sensationalizing the evil consequences of a rejection, reminds us that scaring the innocents and abusing the ignorants is still the best way of building political credit.

3. You don’t go from the national to the EU level without damage, or at least there is no continuity between both. Gathering 350 million people and 25 countries with different cultures and economic situations around a common set of values and political platforms required not so much a compromise between such diverse positions (unless you’re just looking for the smallest common denominator, which runs the risk of satisfying no one), than a re-thinking and utter re-phasing of priorities and struggles. Political signifiers associated with the nation-state don’t make much sense in Brussels, while European one, written in technical and post-political language, will meet national hostility if suddenly imposed with no connection to the local political structure.

4. Class struggle is still a decisive factor. As will all other EU citizens be, the French were faced during the three-month long campaign with cultural and geopolitical arguments as the best rationale for building a unified Europe: stepping on America’s toes, resisting the Chinese wave, uniting militarily and diplomatically to be a leading world actor, and avoiding 20th-century conflicts (while softening 21st-century competition) between the many promiscuous nations of the old Continent. Instead, voters have answered that class still mattered, or at least that social division, economic gaps, and day-to-day alienation meant more to them than gross GNP figures and the Enlightenment fantasy of a common “universal” foreign policy. Lower-income voters are the ones who rejected this Constitution, ad it’s less about narrow-minded nationalism or old-style anti-Americanism than about a structural homology (as Pierre Bourdieu would have had it) wither their social counterparts everywhere, from Shanghai to Detroit to the unemployment-plagued cities of Germany’s Ruhr.

5. A no vote puts its voters in the discomforting yet livable situation of aligning (at least statistically) with their worst enemies. Various people were smiling on May 29: extreme-right followers of Le Pen’s National Front eager to keep the national soul safe from foreign cosmopolitism, center-left Greens and Socialists aiming at a welfare (hyper)state, leftists of all sorts willing to sabotage an EU process they see as having been controlled from day one by financial elites, and even American neo-cons such as Bill Kristol—who wishes so much that the EU would fail forever that he couldn’t help titling his piece in the Weekly Standard, “Vive la France!” Rejoicing on the same night, and at the same electoral result, as Kristol and Le Pen is indeed an odd situation, but it shouldn’t keep the left-wing “no-ers” from continuing the struggle—since it’s only the beginning.


Francois Cusset


The Brooklyn Rail

JUN 2005

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