Vive La France?

When I went off to work as a teacher-researcher in the United States in 1978, the contrast with Europe was striking. An educational system generally of very poor quality and glaring inequality, a constant invasion of daily life by advertising and commercialisation, a strongly anti-intellectual culture, a population profoundly alienated politically (two parties monopolizing public life, pursuing the same policies and with limited ability to mobilize the electorate), an omnipresent militarism and scandalous social disparities (notably in terms of security, housing and access to health care). And all that was upheld ideologically by a perfect self-satisfaction and by the idea that the American model should be imposed, like it or not, on the rest of the world.

In those days, Europe was largely social democratic and peaceful; there was a strong system of social protection, unemployment existed but was not structural, education was being democratized and modernized but continued to transmit knowledge, television was free of advertising, it was possible to walk safely in the streets, there was no far right to be seen, there was no talk of fundamentalism or separate ethnic communities, and the idea of taxing the rich was not shocking to anyone (except to the rich themselves, of course). Having been defeated in its colonial conflicts, Europe had abandoned its imperial ambitions and its citizens were tired of war. All was far from perfect, but, compared to the present-day outlook, it was a “socialist paradise” that managed to be both democratic and real. On the other hand, from the viewpoint of the European privileged classes, it was, if not hell (their privileges being far from abolished), at least purgatory.

Fortunately for them, the eighties and nineties were the time of neo-liberal and neo-militarist follies. Europe came around to imitating the United States, even if, at the same time, the United States was getting worse. This at least maintained the gap between the two, obscured the extent of the upheavals underway, and allowed the European elites to complain ceaselessly that “Europe was falling behind”. One of the preferred methods of catching up is called “European construction”, whose latest manifestation is the treaty for establishing a European Constitution.

The method is simplicity itself. It consists in isolating political processes from the influence of the citizenry, by entrusting a maximum of decisions to a non-elected bureaucracy which is not answerable to any parliament, but which is open to the influence of every possible private pressure group (including certain NGOs). European construction boils down to transferring State power to a super-privileged bureaucracy which preaches to others the purest economic liberalism. Elections can go on being held, but they are of no importance, because no serious political alternative can be proposed, no “New Deal”, no “structural reform”, no “common programme of the left”, no “Italian way to socialism”. Competition and the free market are the only prospects on the horizon now and forever. And, as in the United States, people vote more and more with their feet by avoiding the ballot box, or else vote for whoever seems to be most hated by those in power (Le Pen for instance).

The results of the policies accompanying this “European construction” are catastrophic: whereas the urgent need, after the rapid growth of the fifties and sixties, was for disarmament, cooperation with the third world and ecological development, on the contrary everything was done to encourage waste, endanger people’s very existence, exacerbate antagonisms between North and South and give free rein to every possible particularism and fundamentalism. Jeremy Rifkin’s recent book speaks of the “European dream” and provides a long list of Europe’s advantages in the fields of security, health, education and even scientific research. But all that is precisely the effect of our “falling behind” the model our “advanced Europeans” are desperately trying to catch up with. Of course, there has been economic progress. But there was also economic progress — more of it, in fact — during the preceding period of social democracy and sovereign States. But for the past twenty years, how many social advances have there been? What progress has been made in workers’ control over their work? How many major collective decisions have been taken to improve living conditions? It is no doubt better not to ask such questions.

In the discussions on the constitution, at least on the left, there are in general two types of argument: those who refer to the texts, who are for voting “no”, and those who refer to Auschwitz and Le Pen, who are for voting “yes”. To hear the latter, one would think that rejection of the constitution would lead us into war, if not genocide. This argument, which considers that peace depends on eliminating sovereignty, fails to note that there is more than one kind of sovereignty. Europe is seeking to create its own sovereignty, imitating that of the United States which has strong borders and troops deployed to the four corners of the earth. This creates the danger of endless war, as sooner or later people do not welcome armed missionaries. On the other hand, Switzerland is without doubt the most sovereign country in Europe, but it has never sent its troops abroad, never committed genocide nor started a war.

A referendum has its disadvantages in comparison to an election: those who win an election can always end up doing the opposite of what they promised. The clarity of a referendum prevents such manipulations, and that may be why the procedure is often denounced as dangerous and “populist”. On the other hand, there is no way to prevent people giving the same answer to a question for different reasons, which means that there is sure to be left-wing “no”, a right-wing “no” and a far right “no”. But so what? It is rather odd that those who have supported the policies creating the social conditions that giver rise to the far right now turn around and try to use its existence against those who are precisely seeking to break with those policies.

European construction also enables ecological and socialist leaders to protect themselves from their own principles, or rather from those of their supporters. Every capitulation to the right can always be justified by “Europe”. Indeed — but who wants and who has constructed that Europe? It is easier to evoke Auschwitz than to explain how a social, democratic and ecological Europe can be based on a “highly competitive” deregulated economy. To cite only one simple example, how is it possible to pursue an ecological policy if public transport has to be profitable?

The most dishonest argument of the “yes” camp is without doubt the one about a strong Europe standing up to the United States. For one thing, it is enough to read the American press or to listen to U.S. leaders, who wholeheartedly support the “yes” (while complaining that the most popular argument is precisely the one about standing up to the United States), to realize how shaky that argument is. For another, a Europe whose educational system is sacrified on the altar of short-term profit will be simply a second USA, not an alternative to it. The rest of the world already has enough problems with a single ignorant, aggressive and arrogant superpower. Preferring peace to war and security to competition means opposing the United States, or at least what it represents, but also opposing “European construction”.

There is at least one argument used by the “yes’ camp that is partly correct: the debate goes beyond the narrow bounds of the treaty’s text to become largely symbolic. It fundamentally pits against each other partisans and adversaries of the neo-liberal order, those who want to pursue the policy begun in the 1980s and those who want to change it. A victory of the “no” would provoke a political shock wave, principally by awakening, throughout Europe, the social and popular aspirations which have for so long been repressed and defeated. With Bush in Washington, Sharon in Tel Aviv, Wolfowitz at the World Bank and Ratzinger in the Vatican, one might conclude that reactionary forces have got their way worldwide. But with Chavez in Caracas, the “no” which is growing in Paris and the U.S. army bogged down in Iraq, hope may be changing sides and this is what gives a profound meaning to this campaign. Even if the “yes” wins (and in light of the disproportion of the means at the disposal of the two sides, it would be a miracle if if didn’t), the mobilization for the “no” shows that the times are changing and that the days of TINA (There Is No Alternative to unbridled capitalism) are no doubt counted. After all, the grassroots movement for “no” was launched primarily (on the left) by ATTAC and by the CGT base, which in themselves are far from representing a majority of French people. The echo of that movement throughout French society is an immense sign of encouragement and shows that if the genuine left is at once bold and intelligent, it can rally practically a majority of French people around specific objectives.

Moreover, as in the case of Venezuela’s referendum, or the anti-war mobilization in 2003, a victory of the “no” would show that the media are not invincible, that they don’t yet exercise total brain control and that Internet is a formidable weapon against their propaganda.

In 2003, the former leader of the Algerian FLN, Ahmed Ben Bella, so many of whose companions were killed and tortured by the French army, went so far as to exclaim, “Vive la France!” He would not have been able to exclaim “vive l’Europe”, given how subservient its bureaucracy is to the United States. But France, far from being a “black sheep”, at that moment of its history was a sign of hope and rallying for the whole of the Arab world about to be plunged once more into the horror of colonialism and, as a result, of a war of national liberation (which is far from being over in Iraq, or for that matter in Palestine). By the same token, the Venezuela of Chavez and Cuba are not “isolated” in Latin America — they embody the ideals and hopes of the masses of the people.

The left-wing elites have for a long time shamed France by reducing her past to Vichy and (for the far left) to the Algerian war. But France is also the first democratic revolution on the European continent (and the most radical of all), the Paris Commune, the denunciation of anti-semitism at the time of the Dreyfus case, the Popular Front, the biggest of all general strikes (in May-June 1968) and the model for secularism throughout the world. With the campaign for “no” to the European constitution, after the official “no” in 2003 to American imperial policy, France once again arouses surprise and admiration in much of the world and gives a fresh impetus to a movement, stalled for decades but more necessary than ever, in favor of peace and social progress.

JEAN BRICMONT lives in Brussels.


















JEAN BRICMONT teaches physics at the University of Louvain in Belgium. He is author of Humanitarian Imperialism.  He can be reached at