I realise that’s it been almost a full month since my previous diary on that topic, but as the debates have been mostly focused on domestic issues and dominated by unknown (to most of you guys) local politicians, I did not really find an easy way to convey these to you without giving too many boring details on mundane French stuff.

The main thing in the past month is that the campaign has become a lot more serious and pervasive. It is one of the main topics of the news every day, and it is the main political topic every day, and a lot of good debate is taking place. Many opinions are provided on both sides, many of the real issues are raised and argued, so it has become a real exercise in democracy on a very fundamental topic, which is a good thing.

Obviously, not all the discussions are about the Constitution itself (despite the efforts of the partisans of the “yes” vote), and a lot is about (i) whether we like Europe as it is today (ii) whether the constitution itself is democratic and (iii) the current economic and social situation of France and the general discontent with Chirac and his government.

See previous diaries here:

EU Constitution – France Votes. (Diary III). What if it’s No?

European Constitution – France votes soon. Diary II

France Votes on EU Constitution (I)

1. Whither Europe?

(i) is a fairly natural side debate. A significant theme in all the talking about the Constitution is whether it is possible to be in favor of the “no” and still be “for” Europe. Almost all opponents of the constitution say that they are pro-Europe, and that they only want a “better” Europe.
In the case of the Sovereignists (those that favor the full sovereignty of the French State and want to reduce the power of “Brussels”, mostly on the hard right, but with a strong streak on the hard left as well) they have a fairly consistent position, i.e. that Europe has been given too many powers, taken away from the States, that this Constitution makes these explicit and irreversible, and should thus be opposed to have a try at a more limited “Union of Sovereign Nation-States” with limited powers. These are fairly explicitly opposed to Europe as it exists today, but still have a positive view for a different kind of “Europe”.
The big chunk of the Left which is opposed to the Constitution describes itself as strongly pro-European, but they claim that this Constitutional is too libéral (in the French meaning of that word, which, while also a political insult, means the opposite of what it means in the US – here it means  reagan/thatcher style laissez-faire policies) and that it is a betrayal of a Europe which is supposed to defend workers and social rights against unfettered capitalism. This group says that the Constitution formalises a weak Europe which will have no power to impose pan-European social rights, regulation, minimum tax levels, etc… but will be able to impose free trade, “race to the bottom” tax rates, unrestricted offshoring to the new Central European countries. For a round up of this position, see this counterpunch article.

The partisans of the “oui” say that it is unrealistic to expect people outside France to interpret a “no” vote as anything but France turning its back to Europe, and that it is totally unrealistic to expect others to renegotiate the Constitution after it’s been rejected by the French (and how should it be renegotiated – in a more sovereignist way or in a more social way?).
They also say that the “non” supporters provide arguments in bad faith and are trying to scare people off by claiming things that are simply not true (or claiming things that are true, but will remain true whether the Constitution is voted or not, i.e. are not linked to this vote).

As I’ve said before, I am strongly in favor of the “oui”, so bias may show, but I have tried to present arguments from both sides as fairly as I could.

As a partisan of the “oui”, I see two legitimate arguments for the non:

 <u>the sovereignist position</u&gt.
While I disagree with it, I can understand it. Sovereignty and democracy happen at the national level, and not wanting to transfer more and more power to supranational “Brussels” is a legitimate position, and voting “non” to this Constitution (which, in itself, does not really transfer more powers to Brussels, but makes explicit many of the powers that have previously been transferred over the years) makes sense in that context. I don’t really have arguments against this, as this a real political difference. Europe is a place where you have more power in general (to organise things on a continent wide scale, to talk with one voice on many topics, to coordinate issues that cannot be solved locally) but at the price of diluting your own power within that organisation. Whether you agree or not to sacrifice your autonomy for potentially higher collective efficiency is a real gap that cannot be bridged.

2. Is the Constitution Democratic?

<u>the “democratic” argument.</u&gt
 Those on the “non” side have a point when they say that they are unhappy because one of the main arguments of the “oui” is “vote yes – or it will be chaos and it will kill the European idea”. They say that if it is a bad document, it should be voted down, and that vote should not be seen as a vote against Europe, but as a vote against that document and its specific content. Threatening the “non” voters of chaos is a highly undemocratic position and by refusing to acknowledge that the document can be improved, the “oui” camp shows its true technocratic, elitist and anti-democratic face, and they show that they don’t have real arguments for the document.

See for instance:

Non, pour la démocratie (“No, for democracy”, by Vincent Fournier, a university profssor,  in French, and strangely already behind subscription wall)

Etienne Chouard (a law professor arguing that the EU Constitution does not fulfill the basic requirements of a constitution)

I admit that this is a real argument, to which I have the following replies:

  • it is not true that this is not a democratic document. It was prepared by an assembly representing all legitimate sources of power in Europe: the European Commission, the European Parliament, each national Government and each national Parliament (including these of the Central European countries, which were not even members when this took place). This assembly debated in public (translated in all languages) and the resulting compromise reflected the various positions across Europe, between the federalists and the sovereigntists, the big countries and the small countries, the left and the right. The compromise pretty much reflects what all people in Europe can agree to as basic rules to work and live together, on the basis of what already existed. It was democratic, it was legitimate, and it was public – and it was then approved by a unanimous decision of the European Council of Heads of States.
  • this is a compromise between many contradictory requirements (build on what exists, accomodate new members,  but make it simpler, more efficient and more transparent); it is also an hybrid document- despite being a Constitution, it only regulates a small portion of European powers, as countries will still exist and keep their sovereignty; it only applies to certain fields of action (those that have been delegated by the countries) and not to others, and thus general constitutional theories are difficult to apply to it.

Political power has tended to measure in the number and size of countries, and express itself in coalitions of countries, and not on the basis of ideological differences (although these are sometimes reflected in the composition of the governments representing each country); it is simply an unprecedented thing to mix left-right – or other relevant distinctions – political fight on issues on a continental basis simultaneously with the country to country negotiations typical of international organisations. The compromise that has been reached was made in the most legitimate and logical way in that context, and it is hard to see anything else better or even different come out of what will have to be a similarly messy process. If you don’t like the process, then come upfront with it and mark yourself as a sovereignist. If you don’t like the result, who’s undemocratic? Those that don’t accept a compromise reached by 25 countries and even more institutions, or those that try to live by the rules agreed by all?

3. The Revenge of the Worthies

But back to the campaign in France. As a result of the many polls that showed a victory of the “non” with up to 58% of the votes) , a number of old worthies have come back into the campaign to argue for the “oui”: people like Jacques Delors (former Minister of Finance of Mitterrand in 1981-84 and then President of the European Commission in 1985-95), Raymond Barre (conservative Prime Minister in 1976-81),  Simone Veil (conservative President of the European Parliament in 1979-84, she is also an Auschwitz survivor, the person that made abortion legal in France in 1975 and she is now a member of the Constitutional Court, the highest French judicial body) and Lionel Jospin (socialist Prime Minister 1997-2002). As a result of these efforts, and a generally worthy attempts by the press to explain what the Constitution means, the “oui” has crept back up in the polls, with a couple of them giving the “oui” victorious again now.

Many foreigners have weighed in the French debate: politicians, intellectuals and other well-known figures from other European countries have provided their opinion in French media, and they are all uniformly supporting a “oui” vote. Several “opportune” decisions by European bodies have been taken in recent weeks that favor French interests – some of which had been blocked for years sometimes (like Chirac’s effort to lower VAT on restaurants – this was a promise from his 2002 presidential campaign which requires a unanimous European decision and had been blocked by various countries and the Commission, worried about tinkering of one of the few coordinated taxes in Europe, which have suddenly decided that it would now be helpful…). The maiden flight of the Airbus 380 has also been praised as an example of what a strong Europe can do, and the choice of France for the site of ITER (the international thermonuclear fusion experimental reactor) against Japan thanks to the unified position of Europe, have also weighed in.

With 3 weeks to go, the campaign is essentially tied today, but momentum is slightly on the “oui” side. I’ll get into the economic and social issues, and the general discontent with the government, in my coming diary about Chirac.

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