Trailer diary posted on Daily Kos. Please recommend as this is part of a larger plan…

Following in the footsteps of Welshman, and his great efforts on the coming UK elections, I’ll try to bring to you some additional information on the French referendum campaign on whether to approve or not the European Constitutional Treaty, with the vote on 29 May.

You can find some background on the Constitution itself and the main topics of the campaign in my first diary on the topic, which can be found here (it was also posted on dKos).

En avant!

First of all, I would actually like to have your feedback on what actually would be of interest to you guys:

  • a description of the political campaign? It includes a lot of intra-party fighting this time, which makes it interesting to political junkies in France but may not have that many attractions for outsiders
  • a presentation of the main issues of the day? (again, if I go into details, if will be a lot of domestic stuff which may or may not interest you)
  • a more abstract discussion of the big issues? (I was going to include a bit on Turkey below, but the post is already long enough)

Thanks for your feedback ; here we go!

The campaign is now in full swing

The past week has seen the real start of the campaign. It started with a number of polls confirming that the “no” vote held a slight edge in voting intentions, and saw the start of the “real”, organised, campaign by the proponents of the Yes.

Like the campaign for the Maastricht Treaty in 1991 (which saw the yes vote win by a very small 51% majority), the debate is not between left and right, but mostly between the centrists/mainstream blocs on each side and the more radical or extreme groups of the same side. The big parties (UMP and UDF on the right, and the PS and the Greens on the left) are all in favor of the yes, and the fringe parties (the National Front and the Sovereignist MPF on the right, the communists and trotskysts LO/LCR on the left) but there are also significant minorities/mavericks within the big parties that are in favor of the “no”.

Like the Maastricht vote, the campaign is also “polluted” by domestic issues, in particular strong dissatisfaction with Chirac and his increasingly unpopular Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin. There is a deep social malaise caused by the persistently high levels of unemployment, stagnant incomes, a perceived decline of France and a general sense that reforms are necessary but not done (of course, they are not done because the French – or a least a noisy subset thereof – complain about them whenever any attempt is made…).

The Lefty “No”

On the left, in particular, a number of issues which have little to do with Europe are helping the “no” vote gain legitimacy:

  • a strong desire not to hand Chirac another electoral victory, after having been forced to vote for him in 2002 against Le Pen (and also after he chose to ignore the result of local elections last year, which the left won decisively, and which should have triggered a change of Prime Minister to at least cknowledge the result);
  • the tactical decision by Laurent Fabius, a former Prime Minister in the 80s and one of the heavyweights of the party, to support the “no”. Everybody knows that he did this to distinguish himself from the other potential candidates for the 2007 presidential election (he was seen as a member of the rightist wing of the party, but was in the shadow of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a former economics minister), but it has given legitimacy to the “no” position.
  • the Socialists held a internal vote to decide on their position, and registered members voted 60-40 in favor of the “yes”, but this has not silenced the “no” camp, which has been even more strident since that vote, in blatant disregard of its result (after having called for it, as an exercise in “internal democracy”), whereas the “yes” camp, which thought it had done the hardest part, was caught flat-footed by the persistence of the “no” campaigners, and has been unwilling or unable to use party discipline to silence them.
  • this is all happening is a context of stagnant wages (INSEE, the statistical institute, recently came out with a study showing that purchasing power had actually declined in 2004, for the first time since 1996) and chronic demonstrations by workers to fight for salary increases and other social causes;
  • it has also been results season for companies, and the largest companies have come out with record profit levels, inevitably deemed “undecent” by unions. (and it would be even worse if we still had Francs instead of euros. Total made a 9 billion euro profit (close to 60 billion francs. I still remember the time when a 10 billion franc profit in the early 90s was a national scandal). The issue of fairness is coming up a lot as well with respect to the highest pay packages of the bosses which are increasing a lot faster than average wages.

There is finally a deep-seated belief on the left that the European Constitution is too much in favor of an “Europe libérale”, which in French means, of course, laisser-faire, free-market, pro-business… (Strangely enough, the British Euroskeptics are persuaded of the exact opposite, i.e. that European Constitution is too social-minded).

The righty “No”

On the right, it is only slightly simpler:

  • all the hard right groups are against the Treaty. They are “sovereignists” and resent any transfers of power to Brussels. They have been consistently opposed to further European integration or enlargement, and this is typically the kind of vote where the can get the most visibility for their parties, and they make very active campaigns
  • the mainstream right is mostly behind the Constitution. There are a number of doubters, but they are mostly kept in check by their loyalty to Chirac and to the government now in power.
  • the biggest source of tension on that side in between Nicolas Sarkozy, the -very- ambitious head of the UMP party and expected rival to Chirac for the Presidential election in 2007. Like the left, he is not keen to hand a victory to Chirac, but as the head of the majority party, he cannot not support it either, so he is likely to do a tepid campaign. Chirac loyalists within the party will be more active, but it is likely that there will be a lot of bickering there as well.

The “No” has dominated the campaign so far

So, until the middle of this week, the campaign has been dominated by the antics of the “no”partisans, which have avoided no histrionics (does my own bias shine through this sentence…?):

  • Emmanuelli, a leftist socialist, equalled voting “yes” to the vote by the French Parliament in 1940 that gave full powers to Petain (and gave birth to the Vichy regime). He apologised for this particular remark, but it was only because this was obviously unacceptable, not because it was the most aggressive comment;
  • the fact that the leader of the Socialist Party, François Hollande, was photographed together with Nicolas Sarkozy, the head of the UMP, on the cover of Paris Match, a French political/people weekly, in a show of unity in favor of the Constitution, has been held as an argument that he is “sold” to “Grand Capital”

  • all the current social discontent and unhappiness with Chirac and Raffarin is happily mixed and used as an argument against the Constitution, however tenuous the link between the two; the fact that the government panicks and is now trying to buy off discontents by showering them with budgetary largesse (salary increases for civil servants, new help for farmers, etc…) only reinforces the link between domestic social issues and “Europe” and shows that demonstrations pay off.

The righty “No” has been much less visible, but as always, feeds on the general restlessness.

The launch of the official “Yes” campaign

But this week also saw the launch of the official campaign by the big political machines, with official campaign meetings by the Socialists and the pro-governmental UMP, and both Raffarin and Chirac have stepped up to the plate (although some have suggested that Raffarin is such ” damaged goods” that it is counterproductive) to defend the Constitution.

It remains to be seen if the more rational arguments will have any effect, but at least they are finally been made:

  • the European Constitution has nothing to do with current European directives, which are decided under the existing treaties;
  • the European Constitution actually formalises some new social rights; it protects “public services”, a very important notion in France;
  • the European Constitution will not determine what kind of directives are voted when it is in force – it sets out how they are decided upon. Their actual content will depend on political forces at that time. Currently, the right dominates in Europe, and you cannot expect them to bring about leftist policies. The Constitution is not the place to enshrine specific policies, it just sets the rules on how the political game is played;
  • the European Constitution was a hard-to-reach compromise between 25 countries and many opinions within each country; it is not perfect, and if it does not come in force, the much-worse Nice Treaty will remain in force. If the French vote “No”, no one will come forward with new concessions to “improve” the Constitution from the French’s perspective (especially as the lefty “no” and the rightist “no” are for pretty much the very opposite reasons).

In any case, barring the odd dying pope, this referendum debate is clearly the central item in the news every day (together with the various social movements that, as we have seen, are enmeshed in the debate)


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