The French are At It Again

Paris, France

There are echoes of 1789 in the spring air. “Is this a revolt?” the powerful ask in consternation. “No, sire,” comes the historic reply, “it’s a revolution”.

At least, if a revolution is a reversal of policy brought on by popular revolt against a self-satisfied, arrogant elite that has lost touch with people’s lives and concerns, another revolution could indeed be brewing in France. If so, it starts in the ballot box, in the national referendum to be held next May 29 to ratify the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe.

The French government is one of only nine out of 25 European Union members that have dared submit the Constitution to a popular referendum. The political and media elite never doubted that voters would obediently vote “yes for Europe”. They were victims of their own Europhoria, which has made them deaf to the rising revolt of the masses against a policy of “competition über alles” that subordinates all human concerns to “the free market”.

The awakening to reality began on February 4, when 82% of delegates in France’s largest trade union confederation, the CGT, voted to endorse the “no”. This was a blow to the CGT’s own leadership, which had come out for “yes”. The rumblings began to be heard in the ranks of the Socialist Party, whose first secretary François Hollande had railroaded through an internal party referendum which narrowly endorsed the Constitution before anyone had had time to read it.

A note of panic crept into the “yes” campaign as polls began to show the intention to vote “no” rising steadily above the crucial 50% mark. Jack Lang trotted out his vast stable of celebrities to endorse the “yes” position by their charismatic presence. Jacques Delors warned of “cataclysm”. Everything from the memory of Auschwitz to Paris’s bid for the 2012 Olympics has been evoked as proof of the need to approve this Constitution. Everything but the text itself.

For decades, citizens have been told that each new step in European construction was necessary to ensure peace and consolidate the European model of social solidarity. Now the French are waking up to the fact that they have been sold a bill of goods.

The post-World War II ideal of uniting Europe to prevent another war long since been attained. It is now being exploited to win assent to a project that threatens to link Europe to the external wars waged by the United States. Far from preserving the “European model”, the Constitution has been designed to transform Europe into the vanguard free trade area in the neo-liberal globalization process.

Already, the 1992 Maastricht Treaty dictated strict monetarist discipline to the member States, ruling out not only socialism but even Keynesian economic policies. At the time of the September 1992 French referendum on that Treaty, few actually read it — and those who did can understand why. It was not written to be read by the general public. It is highly unlikely that the French would ever have knowingly chosen the policies dictated by that Treaty. But a slim majority of voters, notably on the left, were won over by promises that after Maastricht established monetary union, the next thing on the agenda would be the long-awaited “social Europe”. The opposite has happened. The obligation to follow EU rules has led to business failures, transfer of industries abroad, cutbacks in social services, reduced purchasing power and mass unemployment.

What’s wrong with it

It is easy to find people who voted for Maastricht who vow not to make the same mistake twice. This time around they are reading the text, and drawing their own conclusions.

To mention just a few things they find wrong with this Constitution:

* No one is sure quite what it is. Jurists point out that it is just another international Treaty, not a real Constitution. But since it has been presented to the public as a Constitution, people naturally judge it as such.

* It is extremely long, 482 pages in the English version, in four main sections totaling 448 articles, plus an endless series of annexes and protocols. Except perhaps for jurists with time on their hands, reading it is rough going.

* Unlike any normal Constitution, it goes beyond defining institutional structure to spell out in considerable detail the policies the European Union must follow. The principal objective of the Union, which conditions all others, is “a highly competitive market economy” where “competition is free and undistorted”. Experience shows that in practice, this means “undistorted” by State intervention on behalf of social equality.

* Only military spending is exempted from the imposed austerity. Article I-41, on the “common security and defence policy”, calls for improvement of military capabilities, and specifies that “commitments and cooperation in this area shall be consistent with commitments under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization”. The European Union is tied to NATO, the United States’ prime institutional instrument for controlling European foreign policy.

* Moreover, it is tied to current U.S. foreign policy doctrine, notably by the stress on combatting “terrorist attacks” (Article I-43) and on military contributions to the “fight against terrorism” (Article III-309). The missions foreseen mesh perfectly with U.S.-led foreign wars. The drafters of this text seem to envision the European Union as the “good cop” alongside the U.S. on the same worldwide beat.

* The Constitution is “concluded for an unlimited period” and can be amended (Article IV-443) only by an extremely tortuous process requiring unanimity of all Member States.

* The EU Charter of Rights — supposed to be a main selling point — falls short of both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and most Western European national constitutions, including those of France, Italy and Germany. Example: where the French Constitution guarantees the right to work, in the sense of the right to gainful employment, the EU Constitution guarantees the right to look for work. The EU Constitution guarantees the “right to strike” not only to workers, but also to employers: thereby introducing “lockout” into French jurisprudence.

All this may look good to “new Europeans” in ex-Soviet bloc countries who are eager to swing from one extreme to the other. For the working class in Western Europe, it spells regression.

Public services

The primary focus of the revolt has been defense of public services. The vast majority of French people are attached to their public services as an essential factor in their high quality of life and social solidarity. France has perhaps the best medical system in the world, and with it the longest life expectancy. The Paris Metro is a model of urban transport. The railroad and postal systems are incomparably more efficient than the privatized systems in Britain and other countries. The country’s resolutely secular school system and rich cultural life are indispensable elements of social cohesion.

To provide all citizens with equal access to such vital services as utilities, transport and postal communication, a broad base is needed to allow the proceeds from the most profitable operations to be used to cover the costs of less profitable operations, such as service to remote rural areas or disadvantaged populations.

This means government regulation. If such services are wide open to private capital, private firms will take over the profitable parts, leaving the non-profit operations to the State. They will be drastically reduced or shut down. By the laws of the financial market, private companies must use profits to pay their shareholders a better return than they can get on other investments. A narrow profit is not enough. In the private sector, serving the public is a slogan, not a necessity.

The Constitution’s advocates lie outright when they claim that it protects public services. The starting point of the “non” campaign has been to expose this deception. The text never mentions “public services”, and certainly no “right to public services”. Article III-166 refers to “services of general economic interest”:

“Undertakings entrusted with the operation of services of general economic interest or having the character of an income-producing monopoly shall be subject to the provisions of the Constitution, in particular to the rules on competition, insofar as the application of such provisions does not obstruct the performance, in law or in fact, of the particular tasks assigned to them. The development of trade must not be affected to such an extent as would be contrary to the Union’s interest.”

This passage introduces the “economic” fox into the chickencoop. As is frequently the case, the language is obscure, but can be read to give primacy to “the rules on competition” and the “development of trade”. Article III-167 goes on to specify that “any aid granted by a Member State or through State resources in any form whatsoever which distorts or threatens to distort competition by favouring certain undertakings or the production of certain goods shall, insofar as it affects trade between Member States, be incompatible with the internal market.” The few exemptions mentioned do not include public services.

Enter Frankenstein

As luck would have it, just as the pre-referendum campaign was getting underway, public attention was drawn to a draft Directive on liberalization of services that perfectly illustrated the implications of the “internal market where competition is free and undistorted” (Article I-3). Known by the name of its author, EU Commissioner Frits Bolkestein, a former head of Shell Oil and a right-wing Dutch political leader, it soon won the nickname of the “Frankenstein directive”. The main feature of this proposed legislation is the “principle of origin”. Services sold abroad would submit to the rules of their country of origin. This means that companies in France or Germany, for instance, could hire services from Poland or Slovakia under the lower wage and looser professional standards of the “country of origin”.

The “social Europe” promised by politicians for years would mean harmonizing social standards upwards, eventually aligning all Member States with those having the highest levels of worker protection, wages and benefits. The United Kingdom — whether Labor or the Conservatives — has persistently blocked all such attempts. Now, the Bolkestein directive makes it quite clear that the thrust is toward bringing standards down to the lowest levels.

This would wipe out the social gains of over a century in countries such as France, Germany and Belgium. It would also imperil France’s public services, by forcing them to compete with cheaper offerings from poorer countries, outside French regulations.

Conservative and Socialist leaders alike in France fell over themselves condemning this directive. The catch is that when it was first introduced last year, those same leaders endorsed it heartily. This purely opportunist change of heart could not fool anyone.

To add to the embarrassment of the “yes” faction, there was Mr. Bolkestein himself, almost the perfect caricature of the arrogant reactionary. He, who was the first Dutch political leader to openly complain of Muslim immigration in his country and who fiercely opposes Turkey’s entrance into the EU, blasted the French as “nationalist” for distorting his name as “Frankenstein”. To illustrate the merits of his directive, Bolkestein told a French audience that he would be delighted to import a Polish electrician, since it was hard to find one where he has a vacation home in northern France.

The mayor of the nearest town wrote to Bolkestein sympathizing with his plight, and pointing out that the French had invented a remedy for his woes: the yellow pages of the telephone directory, where he could find at least 13 electricians. The local members of that trade thereupon demonstrated their presence by cutting Bolkestein’s current. This is the sort of direct action the French tend to relish.

Bolkestein’s appearance was so counterproductive as to help compensate for the media blackout of serious “no” arguments. Yet some polls indicate that most journalists disagree with their editors and publishers and plan to vote “no”.

Enthusiastic “black sheep”

This is just another indication of the deep split between rulers and ruled. The groundswell for the “no” has come from the grassroots, with a proliferation of neighborhood meetings examining the text. In Paris, activist groups have sprung up distributing leaflets critical of the Constitution at Metro stations, and report that two out of three passersby stop to discuss the issue. Television gives considerable news time to trivial pro-Constitution appearances of leaders of the conservative UMP, the Socialist Party and the Greens (whose party very narrowly endorsed the “yes”), while remarkably well-attended and enthusiastic meetings for “no” go unreported. On April 14, while President Jacques Chirac was warning a selected group of young people on an evening-long television show that if France rejects the Constitution she will be the “black sheep” of Europe, an enthusiastic crowd packed the big Zenith theater in Paris for a “non de gauche” meeting organized by the French Communist Party (PCF). Speakers included dissident Socialists and Greens, Trotskyists, Left Republicans, and a range of grass roots activists. The hero of the anti-globalization movement, José Bové, reminded the audience that in 1789, French peasants stormed the chateaux without waiting to see what the rest of Europe thought or did. When France has a great progressive idea it can take it to the world.

What idea? In the simplest terms, it was expressed by an academic, Marie-José Mondzain, when she said that a growing majority of citizens reject a world where everything and everybody can be bought and sold. They are those who have neither much to sell nor the fantasy of being able to buy everything, and those who prefer to spend their lives giving and sharing. She had clearly struck the right note with the audience, which rose to its feet in a long standing ovation.

Six days later, Socialists crowded into a Paris gymnasium in defiance of their Party leaders with the slogan, “This time it’s NO”. Both meetings displayed the same resolute rejection of neoliberalism, the same electric enthusiasm, sustained applause and standing ovations for speakers. But this gathering was perhaps even more promising. In case the “no” wins, there is a chance that the revolt might overtake the Socialist Party itself, which has a real possibility of influencing the future course of France and Europe. And the dissident Socialists promise to unite their campaign with others, the PCF, Greens, and above all ATTAC (“Association pour la Taxation des Transactions Financières pour l’Aide aux Citoyens”), whose advocacy of an international Tobin tax has blossomed into a full-scale critique of neo-liberal globalisation, and which has been the main “think tank” for the present revolt.

What next?

What will happen if the “no” wins?

ATTAC president Jacques Nikonoff observed that contrary to the official alarmism, the European Union will go on functioning according to most recent of its treaties, the Treaty of Nice, until 2009. The juridical situation will be unchanged. Politically, the French “non” will create a salutary shock wave through Europe. It will stimulate a real debate on basic economic issues that have been muffled for twenty years by “TINA” — there is no alternative. The worst measures will be stalled, or at least not written into an iron Constitution. The prospect will open to enact radical transformation in the foundations of the EU — upwards social harmonization, the universal right to social services, a progressive industrial policy, opposition to all forms of neocolonialism, cancellation of Third World debt, dissolution of NATO, etc.

The most active of the dissident Socialists, Henri Emmanuelli, made the point that European leaders had created an impossible mess by rushing unprepared into “irresponsible” enlargements. When the Union was enlarged to take in Greece, Spain and Portugal, considerable funds were allocated to help bring them up to European standards. No such measures were taken for the new Eastern European members. This inevitably has led to competition for jobs and industry instead of solidarity between Member States. Emmanuelli noted that the United States pumps up its economy by massive deficit spending — pouring the money into the military. In contrast, the EU could have invested constructively in raising standards in its new Member States — but this is prohibited by the rigid budget balancing rules laid down in Maastricht. The ban on deficit spending has led to stagnation and tension between Member States.

In an effort to quell the rebellion in the ranks, François Hollande hauled out the scarecrow Jean-Marie Le Pen. In fact, Le Pen has been relatively inconspicuous recently. This, suggested Hollande, was because dissident Socialists “were doing Le Pen’s work for him” by opposing the Constitution. Hollande even went so far as to ask French television to invite Le Pen and other far right-wingers to defend the “no”. The “no” must be stigmatized as a far right, nationalist rejection of “Europe”.

The blackmail, “you agree with the National Front”, does not seem to be working. If anything, it is deepening the bitter division among Socialists. As for the argument, “a yes vote is a yes for Europe, a no vote is against Europe”, this is also worn out. As a young trade unionist put it, “our generation has grown up with Europe. There is no question of saying yes or no to Europe. The question is: what sort of Europe?”

Moreover, it should be reasonably obvious that the present course of tearing down social benefits in the name of “Europe” is leading to a backlash. Emmanuelli warned that those who thought we could just go on indefinitely allowing unemployment to rise in countries like France and Germany had forgotten the past. Unregulated competition leads inevitably to a revival of nationalism. The best way to block the rise of the extreme right in Europe is to vote “non”.

A more positive constant theme, very particular to this country, is the reference to France’s revolutionary tradition. Most French people really don’t want a society based on “a highly competitive free market”; they’d rather go back to “liberté, égalité, fraternité”. At the large meetings one can feel the same wave of excitement and confidence: we’ve done it in the past, and we can do it again! France will show the way to a progressive, social Europe that can really be a model for the world!

Against this, the “yes” camp argues with authority (Elizabeth Badinter: “the leaders who wrote this Constitution know better than the common run of mortals”), celebrity (Jack Lang’s reality show of big names), outright deception (pretending that this Consitution protects public services) and fear: “you can’t vote like Le Pen! what will the neighbors think?”

For twenty years, Le Pen has been used as a bogeyman by the official left to cover its own steady retreat to the right. Now it seems that a reinvigorated left may be prepared to stand on its own principles, without the bogeyman. Le Pen can retire.

DIANA JOHNSTONE is the author of Fools’ Crusade: Yugoslavia, Nato, and Western Delusions published by Monthly Review Press.

Diana Johnstone is the author of Fools’ Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO, and Western Delusions. Her new book is Queen of Chaos: the Misadventures of Hillary Clinton. She can be reached at