FRANCE, with its resounding and rebellious vote against Europe’s constitutional treaty, has again shown itself to be a political nation to its core. The vote, which created shock waves throughout Old Europe, was a moment of hope for the peoples of Europe and nervousness for its political elites. In taking this bold step France has reconnected with its historic mission and shown that it is possible to avoid the seemingly inevitable by rejecting economic and political faits accomplis.
This no vote is of capital importance. It represents a setback to ultraliberal attempts to impose, all over the world and in contempt of people’s wishes, the economic monoculture laid down by the dogma of globalisation.
Since the mid-1990s this model has encountered resistance, such as the big social movement in France that began in November 1995. As far back as 1989 there had been Seattle, which gave rise to the movement that became known as “Another World is Possible”, especially after the first World Social Forum in Porto Alegre in 2001, and Genoa later that year. There have been movements in countries such as Argentina, India and Brazil. But the May vote was the first time that, in a country of the North and within the framework of a government referendum, a whole country had the chance officially to say no to ultraliberal globalisation.
In their efforts to work out the meaning of France’s massive no vote, newspaper columnists have been behaving like entomologists examining an insect they had long thought extinct. Since most columnists were committed to a unilateral yes campaign (in the process denouncing the positions of their opponents as populist, demagogic, xenophobic and masochistic) they are now incapable of generating analyses proper to the scale of the rout. We have witnessed an extraordinary complacency among leading public figures who do not understand, and are unable to accept, that the “people” (a word they only use while holding their noses) have refused to accept the prevailing “Euro-rationality”. Yet the people really have spoken: the abstention rate was only 30%, compared with 57% in the European parliament elections a year ago.
The extent of this mobilisation, especially among young people and the working class, on a very dry subject – a text of 448 articles not counting appendices, declarations and protocols – is an unexpected success for democracy. The people have made a major comeback: they have moved from a sense of political dispossession to a determined stand to take back the political arena.
Since its beginnings in 1958, particularly since the Single Europe Act of 1986, the construction of Europe has imposed growing constraints on all national decision-making. The Treaty of Maastricht (1992), followed by the stability and growth pact (1997), deprived national governments of two of their main levers – monetary policy and budget policy. The third lever, fiscal policy, is becoming less and less independent, because it has to be pursued within a general logic of unrestricted free trade.
The citizens of France understood that the treaty for which they were being invited to vote would constitutionalise fierce competition at European level between the producers of goods and services and between a set of social systems caught in a downward spiral. There was nothing in the feeble democratic advances of the treaty to counterbalance the establishment of an ultraliberal model that would have made future electoral exercises effectively meaningless.
The no vote was well informed. It came after thousands of meetings and much reading and discussion, with books about the constitution heading best-seller lists in France for months. In the face of state propaganda in most media, it was clear that people wanted to make up their own minds. They were helped by the patient grassroots work by many campaigning groups that sprang up across France, especially local committees set up by Attac. This has been a credit to democracy.
Was this a nationalist vote? No. Mostly it was actually a vote “for” Europe. This has been clear to the many trade unionists and campaigners in other European countries who, at home and in their contribution to the campaign in France, have expressed their solidarity with the forces behind this no vote, and have seen it as a way of building another kind of Europe. Also, many Europeans, deprived of referendums in their own countries, effectively asked the French to vote no on their behalf.
Outside France commentators believe that the no vote has weakened Europe in relation to the United States, leaving the American superpower with no effective counterweight. They are wrong. In fact the proposed constitution would have gone even further in aligning Europe with US interests (particularly at the military level).
A new situation has been created. People have been given a chance to state their views about the rules and values that should govern the project for a united Europe. That project cannot be reduced simply to the free circulation of capital, goods and services. Seen in this perspective, the no vote of 29 May does not close doors. Instead it opens the door that leads to hope.