Politicus: How can France's elite sell the EU constitution?

Posted in Europe | 26-Apr-05 | Author: John Vinocur| Source: International Herald Tribune

French President Jacques Chirac answers questions during a live televised debate with young people about the forthcoming referendum on the EU constitution in Paris April 14, 2005.
PARIS How in the world are the French government, the big political parties both left and right, and much of the mainstream media going to get it together to convince the country that it should accept Europe's new constitution in a referendum next month?

Ain't no simple matter. In fact, as the weeks slither past and every poll out there says France will turn its back on both the constitution and the French-European establishment May 29, two simple truths are emerging:

Reality A. The "no" campaign has developed as part of a rare, democratic exchange in which France truly debates Europe's future head-on. This is happening in a what's-in-Europe-for-me context, totally removed from the technocratic Brussels discussions that make the European Union a visceral turn-off for great numbers of its citizens. These two striking elements are linked, and for now, the seeming majority of "no" voters and their loose alliance in defiance of the establishment, are being legitimized in one poll after another.

Reality B. The referendum is still a long way off, but the "yes" camp, piping in every register, has not found the tune that sings. It has reached for all ears, but nothing has really taken hold. Two standard French procedures - the anti-American lever that says the Yanks want a unified Europe to fail, and the government tactic to smooth out opposition by giving in to every current demand in the labor arena - are not producing. Neither have the "yes" camp arguments that all of Europe is devastated by the prospect of a French "no," and that a rejection will be catastrophic for France.

On April 14, in a largely botched television outing when Jacques Chirac thought he could turn the tide in a two-hour debate with young people, he grabbed the first 20 minutes to cast the referendum as a showdown between a "humanist" Europe with France at its center, and the cold, mercenary world of the Anglo-Saxons.

Revving up the rhetoric, Chirac described the United States' intention as stopping the construction of Europe.

But this message evaporated in post-mortems that concentrated on Chirac's bungled performance, his incapacity to link French reality to the constitution or to explain how voting "yes" would get people jobs in France. As for stopping the construction of Europe, a poll in Le Figaro showed that 80 percent thought a "no" vote unlikely to produce such a result.

On its own initiative, the Bush administration has made it clear that it doesn't like being misrepresented on the constitutional issue by Chirac, all the more since it could not easily be against a treaty that presages Turkey's entry into the EU. Considering a couple of centuries' history of opportunistic anti-Americanism in France, the Bush people might just think their most excruciatingly subtle response would be to say flat out they're in the "yes" camp with Chirac.

Since the start of the campaign, the other classic French play - softening the general level of political dissatisfaction by throwing money or more vacation time at whoever's asking for it - has resulted so far in raises for state functionaries, extra time off for farm workers and the start of a turnaround by the government on its plan to eliminate May 16 as a paid holiday.

Instead of defanging the rejectionists, the continuing unresponsive poll scores have made the government look weak, desperate and vulnerable to more pressure.

Marie-George Buffet, leader of the Communist Party, one of a "no" spectrum that runs from extreme left to extreme right, nailed the mood exactly:

"As soon as the 'no's' began to climb in the polls, the government began to negotiate on public sector salaries. If the 'no's' win, the government will have to react and there'll be more progress."

So, saying "no" gets equated with pay raises. And calling a "no" vote a flirt with the apocalypse, gets guffaws in terms of the narrow perspectives of everyday French life. Chirac has indeed pressed the awful-awful warning button, but contradictorily, sensing it frightens no one, has added, "I don't want to dramatize things."

Lionel Jospin, the former Socialist prime minister who is about to enter the campaign as a "yes" man, says the same thing this way: "Voting 'no' will not cause a tragedy."

The French press and broadcasters, largely in favor of adopting the constitution, come in here. Parallel to the mainstream parties, and counter to the poll results, they have offered the electorate a constant stream of reports from Brussels and other capitals suggesting that Europe is in a state of death-rattle dread about a French rejection.

Over the weekend, Le Monde, which acknowledges it is a "yes" advocate, bravely disclosed in an article by its ombudsman that many of its readers considered its columns, analyses and opinion pages have too closely fit its editorial view. And, just as forthrightly, the newspaper's ombudsman said "in recent days a better balance was being sought."

That may enliven the debate in the pages of Le Monde, but not necessarily help the French or European establishment turn things around.

Getting real, Handelsblatt, the financial newspaper that in some ways is the voice of German business, talked last week with two Brussels think-tankers who hardly portrayed a Europe or a Germany terrified by the idea of a French "no." One said it wouldn't be the end of the world, and the other said that France and Europe, in fact, were getting "the bill for the noninvolvement of its citizens and the autism of its governments."

So what can the French establishment say in the next four weeks that would get people to vote "yes"? Perhaps a hard dose of truth is the best approach. Nicolas Sarkozy, who spoke his mind honestly in urging people to vote "yes" because "in any case, Europe can't be worse than it is today," might just add that whatever's in the constitution, France doesn't necessarily have to pay attention to it.

He'd have a vital precedent to cite: France's approval by referendum of Maastricht Treaty, or Europe's economic constitution.

With ratification, France locked itself into a rigorous set of national economic performance criteria to underpin the credibility of Europe's nascent common currency. But when their excessive public spending made the standards too stringent for them, France and Germany flaunted the criteria, then pushed the EU into effectively trashing Maastricht's Stability and Growth Pact.

For France's "yes" camp, no reason to look farther than home for an argument certain to be understood.