French government fights for the "Yes" with all means

Posted in Europe | 23-May-05 | Author: Martin Walker

France's President Jacques Chirac

The opinion polls do not look promising, but all precedent suggests that the French and the Dutch will respond to the appeals of their political and cultural leaders and vote yes. There is just a week to go in France, and ten days in Holland, before the respective referendums are held on the draft new constitution for the European Union.

Precedent is important. The French very nearly rebelled 13 years ago, the last time they were asked to vote Yes or No on the question of Europe. In 1992, it was to ratify the Treaty of Maastricht, which gave them the euro currency, the EU’s supposed Common Foreign and Security Policy, and the new name of ‘Union’ for what had been the European Community.

Had it been up to the French alone, they would have rejected the Treaty. But then the planeloads of votes came in from the sun-drenched outposts of the old French colonial empire in the Caribbean and South Pacific, and as so often when the French state really, really needs something, the votes of la France d’outremer, France overseas, did the trick.

It may well happen again. The 1.2 million voters of the 4 Departements of France that just happen to lie overseas, Guadeloupe, Martinique, French Guyana and the Isle of Reunion in the Indian Ocean, are being bombarded with reminders of what they owe the French state. ‘Owe’ is the operative word. Paris doubled its budget for them this year, to $1,500 million. And the European Union itself chipped in with $4 billion for the current five-year period. That makes $4,000 per head – a very strong inducement to keep voting Yes.

The French government is remarkably brazen about this, despite the outrage of French politicians who are campaigning for a No vote, like a rebel member of President Jacques Chirac’s own UMP party, Nicolas Dupont-Aignant, who told reporters at a press conference last week: "The establishment in France is running scared. They will stop at nothing to secure a Yes vote, including this blackmail."

The agents of the French state shrug, and half-agree, and then unveil their latest ploy -- subsidized transatlantic air tickets. Students and others on low incomes are to get a $325 subsidy for a once-a-year return air ticket to France from Fort-de-France in the Caribbean.

"EU money is channeled into almost every aspect of life overseas," Chantal Cransac, of the Ministry for European Affairs, told reporters as her Minister, Claudie Haigneré trailed around the Caribbean on the mission to persuade. "We want people to be aware of this, so that if they vote Non and lose out, they can't plead ignorance."

They all know in these tropical corners of France that life would be a great deal poorer and more Third World-like without the subsidies from Paris and Brussels, and they tend to vote accordingly. So even without lending credence to those cynics who scoff at the high voter turnout in the Caribbean and the near-Stalinist majorities votes they give to whatever Paris wants, the fact remains that the French back in France will need to vote No by a hefty margin – a million or so – to overcome the votes from overseas.

But such an overwhelming No cannot be ruled out, for the same reason that the Dutch might also vote No. It is, after all, becoming a habit. The Danes voted No against having the euro currency and so did the Swedes. The Irish, despite the massive generosity from Brussels that pumped 3 percent of Irish GDP into the country every year for 30 years – the equivalent in the United States of an annual $300 billion cash injection – voted No on the Treaty of Nice three years ago. They were told to go away and vote again and get it right this time, which they dutifully did.

What the Danes, Swedes and Irish had in common is what faces the Dutch now. Almost all of the national elites, including the leaders of the main political parties, the ‘news’ bulletins of the TV stations and the editorial pages of the main newspapers and magazines, the main labor unions and business leaders and bankers and even some of the churches all urged a Yes. And the Danes, Swedes and Irish in effect gave their elites a giant raspberry, and made it clear that the traditional elites no longer had the respect or the trust of their fellow citizens, and had therefore lost much of their influence.

This is also what seems to be happening in Holland today, where the public mood is still shaken by the murder of film-maker Theo van Gogh by an Islamic militant last year, the burnings of mosques, and before that was the assassination of the populist gay politician whose new insurgent party was about to score a stunning electoral success on an anti-immigration ticket.

This is no longer the contented, cozy Netherlands of tulip fields and cheese markets and the charming canals of Amsterdam, but a country where the most common name of newborn baby boys in the three biggest cities last year was Mohamed. It is also a Holland that also feels aggrieved that it pays more per head into the EU coffers of Brussels than any other country.

“People are fed up with the way politicians have built Europe without including them,” Lousewies van der Laan, a former EU official who now runs the better Europe Foundation and campaigns for a Yes vote, told the Financial Times last week. “They feel that Europe is a train that is speeding down the tracks, and they really do not know what is going on inside it, or where it is going, and think it is time to pull the emergency brake.”

That sums up the mood in Europe very well; there is a quiet populist uprising under way, and it is not about logic, and not even about some of the issues that really grip many people like immigration and Islam and the prospect of including Turkey in the EU, and the sluggish growth and high unemployment of so many EU economies. It is that the EU has always been a project of the economic and political elites, and people are no loner listening to them – except in places like Guadeloupe and Martinique where the elites have the money to buy whatever vote they want. And that too is a factor that stirs the populist resentment of the voters back in mainland France, whose taxes are paying for those free flights from the Caribbean.