Thwarted By A Surge Of Democracy

By Serge Halimi

There is one tiny problem with most of the analysis of last Sunday’s vote in France. Those who probe the motivations of the large majority who voted no (54.87%) forget to remind us that they, overwhelmingly, voted yes.

For more than six months, all the leading commentators in the media heaped praise on the constitutional project. France’s two biggest media owners (and weapons manufacturers) endorsed the yes side: Serge Dassault, a conservative senator, did so in an editorial in one of his many magazines; Arnaud Lagardere spoke to a pro-yes rally, cheered by Nicolas Sarkozy and most of the cabinet.

Most commentators have observed that Jacques Chirac has been stung by this defeat, but the rout of France’s mainstream media is even more impressive. From the rightwing television channel TF1 to the “leftwing” weekly le Nouvel Observateur, and including le Monde, Liberation, the business press, the major radio stations, even women’s and sports publications – they all warned and railed, they all censored and twisted. Yet, their propaganda was blunted by an unexpected surge of democracy. Thousands of well-attended meetings discussed the constitutional treaty. And, bit by bit, the sense of inevitability that it would be easily ratified by a mildly interested electorate was torn apart.

Indeed the outrage about media bias became a leading issue of the campaign – not least because it encapsulated so many of the things that this referendum came to be about: representation, the elite and class.

The problem is obvious on the political side. Last February more than 90% of French deputies had backed the constitution; it garnered the support of only 45% of the voters. The gap is no less obvious when it comes to informing the people: the leading journalists, who often live in Paris, an increasingly bourgeois city, seem to write and speak for the affluent. And the rich did vote yes by a healthy margin, just like 66% of the Parisians.

But elsewhere it was quite another story: whereas 74% of the voters earning more than E4,500 a month backed the constitutional project, 66% of the voters earning less than E1,500 a month voted against. In ultra-wealthy Neuilly (a Paris suburb where many industrial and media tycoons reside, and whose mayor is the presidential hopeful Sarkozy) 82.5% voted yes. Mining cities of northern France and the poorest districts of Marseille were equally lopsided: 84% of Avion (Nord-Pas-de Calais) and 78% of Marseille’s 15th district voted no.

Granted, Chirac has lost. Yet it should not take long for the Socialists to wonder how well a party of the left is doing when 80% of the workers and the unemployed, 60% of the young and a large proportion of its own voters desert its official position on such an important issue.

Four years ago Pierre Moscovici, then the French minister for European affairs, wrote in the Financial Times that Tony Blair’s triumph was “excellent news for the left and for Europe. For the left, it shows that a good leader, good results and a good programme can win elections. From that point of view, Mr Blair is an admirable example to other social democrats.” Yet a few months after Lionel Jospin had been inspired by this “admirable example” he was humiliated in France’s presidential election and sidelined by Jean-Marie Le Pen. The cause? A gulf between the Socialist party and its working-class constituency, who rarely read the English business press.

The party did not learn its lesson. By backing a constitution enshrining free-market liberalism, it again made the wrong choice and lost.

Business leaders and the wealthy journalists who write for them may bewail this: the French regularly reject Anglo-Saxon-style capitalism, and the left electorate does not want the “third way”. Every new election makes this clear. Yet nothing seems to change. Chirac was first elected president 10 years ago because he had denounced a “social divide”. Today it is greater than ever. In the meantime, a series of free-market reforms has hit pensions, education and industry. Unemployment has kept on rising and poverty has spread.

Some politicians – and the employers’ federation – had hoped to use the constitution’s obsession with markets (the word appears 88 times) and competition (29 times) as a legal wedge against France’s “social model”.

“Why am I pro-European?” said Sarkozy a few weeks ago. “Because I think it is a powerful lever to force France to modernise and reform. If France has twice as much unemployment as other countries it is not because we are too liberal, it is because we have the 35-hour week.” But France is not yet safe for liberalism. Sarkozy’s line of argument triggered such a backlash that the Socialists – but also Chirac – swore that he had misunderstood it all. “The constitution is a child of 1789,” Chirac argued.

But by voting no, many French people have understood that their choice was the truly European one – that, contrary to what they were told, the constitutional treaty was not the tool that could end Europe’s free-market drift. In the last 20 years, the project dreamed up by the European commission and most governing coalitions of the member states has appeared obsessed only with economic reform, an ever-expanding free-market zone, the dismantling of the welfare state, lower corporate taxes and business-friendly legislation – such as a proposal to liberalise Europe’s market for service industries.

France’s landslide rejection of the treaty is likely to embolden many of the progressive forces of the EU, bringing about the rethinking of a once-worthy ideal that gradually became distorted into a single market and a military junior partner for the US. Such a reappraisal bears no resemblance to the “federation of fear” that European commission president José Manuel Barroso saw unfolding after Sunday’s vote.

All along, “Europe” has been an elite process with shallow roots. In France, a large turnout (70%) has tackled the constitutional project with seriousness and passion. Many politicians in Paris and Brussels probably regret this surge of democracy and will look for ways to pressure the French to hold another vote. But it is unlikely that an informed electorate will change its mind now that it has understood the links between the social devastation at home and the neoliberal policies that spread under the cover of European unification.

Serge Halimi writes for le Monde diplomatique (www.mondediplo.com) and is the author of Le Grand Bond en Arrière: Comment l’ordre libéral s’est imposé au monde (The Great Leap Backward: How the liberal order was imposed on the world)


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