The Sunday May 29 victory of the NON campaign against the EU Constitutional Treaty has already taken its first toll. On Tuesday, President Jacques Chirac replaced a controversial, unpopular prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, with the debonair, Dominique de Villepin. In a morose but defiant speech on Sunday evening, Chirac provoked international tension over Europe. The French and British mainstream press heaped on the hysteria with worn out Kissingerisms of falling dominoes.
A long time associate of Chirac and a former foreign minister, Villepin was of course the man to have given France the tepidly willed role of peace harbinger faced with the US plan to invade Iraq. His oppositional stance stood upon being rational. His words evoked US responsibility under international law. But his appointment is little more than a make-up job. A handsome profile for Chirac to keep face.
The French political elite has long played off on drama to rally its forces. One need only recall another May event, this time back in ’68. Faced with a mounting insurrection, then President Charles de Gaulle fled France to Baden Baden where he consulted with his chiefs of staff behind closed doors. The plunge into darkness worked. Shortly after returning to Paris, he launched a referendum on his political future. A mass of 800,000 Gaullist forces marched along the Champs Elysees to Place de la Concorde calling for an end to the student-workers’ revolt, prior to de Gaulle’s overwhelming referendum victory. Little has changed since.
At bottom, the NON result is not more significant for internal French politics than were the regional and cantonal elections a year ago when the Socialist Party swept the board with their candidates. In any democratic system, this would have surely been enough to remind a leader of his outstanding debts and pledges. Yet in 2004 not only did the president fail to speak henceforth in the name of all the French, he also ignored the opposition victory. Even now, the elite might be pissed off, but what it expresses is anything but shame.
This is why it must be said that the French voted on the Constitutional Treaty less out of interest in the European past and future, than on the national present. In the build-up to the French poll on Sunday, the media usurped objectivity and turned an act of responsible citizenry into a battleground lined with self-deception and guilt.
What stood explicitly to observe was the spiritual pact between the media and the French political elite. Together they tried to hound the NON vote into the irrational. The mainstream media overwhelmingly rejected any new voices from being heard. They bid to force the opposition into the clutches of former prime ministers whose “leftist chic” is a stain on the ontological complaints issued in the only major question asked of the population about the entire European governance issue, aside from the initial Maastricht Treaty referendum of 1992.
Those new voices, however, are the ones to have framed the opposition’s standpoint. It was the ATTAC group, knit from sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s 1995 involvement in the general public sector strike with Le Monde diplomatique (the monthly political journal with no relation to the establishment daily Le Monde). ATTAC’s members are also some of the people who helped bring you the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre and Mumbai. Their publications, website (www.attac.fr) and public gatherings proved to be the laboratory fostering the arguments on why a NON was necessary.
ATTAC operates as a national NGO projecting internationally. It is at the forefront of progressive political groups in France and throughout Europe who reject the association of the current capitalist oligarchy running the G7 zone with the name “democracy”. And it lies at the tense fault line of debate regarding the most effective way to grind down the power elite, whether through self-transformation into a political party or by establishing the issues from without.
As the late French philosopher Michel Foucault argued, it is pointless to battle against power wholesale until understanding how to reform the terms of governance. Yet it is senseless to begin to govern until striving to establish new terms for creating oneself as an individual and group member. The whole question is how does the other side, the 24 other member states, fare in all of this.
This is what the French are seeking to work out from behind the scenes, in the shadows where the media glare does not beam and where meaning is shaped to strike. From the media’s angle, the NON vote is merely a vote of protectionism, national cocooning and cowardly diversion from the necessities of today.
As usual, the British establishment press, from the eurosceptics of the Financial Times to the Blairites of the Guardian lambasted the French sense of the situational and surreal. After all, wasn’t the European Union a great deal of a French insistence? Weren’t the French benefiting most from the treaty? Hasn’t everything been done to comply with France’s stubborn insistence on agricultural subsidies and its broad public sector?
As a progression from the European Economic Community, a financial deal that was built upon the persuasive rhetoric of the need to prevent further wars between France and Germany, the European Union long ago left the shores of memory for most of the population. Contemporary pragmatism forces it to be considered an economic powerhouse in a brutal competitive market. Therefore, it is argued, “Planet France” can only better grow under the new “neo-liberal” terms set out in the Constitution. As Jon Henley wrote in the Guardian (May 14), “the liberal Anglo-Saxon model (in Britain at any rate) boasts an unemployment rate half that of France’s, a minimum wage raised by 40% in five years, health spending doubled over the same period, steadily increasing purchasing power, years of sustained growth, low interest rates and 2 million children lifted from below the poverty line.”
Why then would “Planet France” resist an economic philosophy bound for success? The only thing Henley failed to point out were the terms of the initial conditions motivating that British growth. Over a decade of Thatcherism had gone as far as wiping away minimum wage requirements. Purportedly hands-off government led to the “poll tax”. Under Blair, continued short-term planning has marked the job creation front and the nature of British services being offered. In this makeshift mood of post-crisis, Britain perpetuates its imperialism. Like France, it stands within the top five GDPs worldwide oil, weapons and financial products are its only “productive” sectors.
Beyond contemporary economic platforms, the European Union is also the child of history. Yet if the French voted “NON” on the referendum, they did not do so in the name of WWII and imperial glory. Put to the ballot was their betrayed past. As international awe shrouds this expression of the population’s will, the truism of the media’s ability to send the near-past into oblivion has been further confirmed. The date of reckoning is neither 1945, nor 58 and de Gaulle, nor even 68 or 89, the latter being revolutions in their own right. It was 2002.
The victory of the “NON” is an attack on the results of the 2002 presidential elections-and everything that has come in its wake. (See NORMAN MADARASZ, “The Luck of the Draw”, April 22, 2002; “Pandora’s Box: Media Obsessions and Muting the Progressive Voice,” May 7, 2002, www.counterpunch.com). As a collective expression, it is absurd to speak of revenge. But as a judgment on the type of governance Jacques Chirac has offered the 83 percent of the French population who voted against him in the first round back in 2002, only to be compelled to elect him against the freak result of a face-off against a far-right contender in the second, the majority of the population was indeed stirred for action.
Some will object that the NON vote was replete with a right-wing xenophobic sentiment. The NON forces consist also of the extreme right, the Front National and MPF, headed by Jean-Marie LePen and Philippe de Villiers, respectively. Together, they may account for some 15 percent of the entire voting population. Despite their leaders’ rhetoric, all of the voters’ claims cannot be dismissed outright as mere lunacy. But what the entire vote surely falls short of is muffled fear, as Timothy Garton Ash would have it (The Guardian, May 30).
Instead, the vote was largely cast upon issues related to accountable and emancipatory governance. The turnout in France was high for a non-national level election, standing at some 70 percent. Democracy is only a pale ideological lie when the fudged results of the vote-count are used to force through programs for which the majority has little patience. The referendum had everything to do with breaking the gridlock of an elite that has insisted ever since the latter-day decay of the French socialist party on telling the people want they want.
Distance is often a theoretical vantage point held high in esteem in the sciences, whereas modulating the question of speed of thought is often ignored as a methodological approach. Whether a project for a socialist Europe will be achieved or not depends on many factors of transnational building which require, over and above the population’s consent, time. Hasty results can now be deferred by disagreement. The lessons learnt recently over the elitist protectionism involved in drafting the United States Constitution must be borne in mind here. Out of its slanted terms, the US Senate has defended its oligarchic legitimacy for over 200 years. So as opposed to what the French media claim about the impressive level of debate marking the referendum campaign, the actual negotiation begins now with the power elite on the retreat.
In the current militaristic and corrupt-corporate environment, it plays into the hands of conservative manipulators to encourage the formation of a centralized European executive, whose ultimate intension is to build a European army. As it also does into the pockets of the transnational military-industrial complex, which arm-in-arm with the increasingly monopolized stock exchanges, are the main fabricators of what is known today as the “economy”. Slowing down inevitable thought associations is a stick thrown into the spokes of competitive hysteria. With China fever going round, such hysteria has only built since the terms of its forced-fed argument were first introduced in the early nineties.
From a balanced vantage point, the Chinese threat looks more integrated from this side of the Atlantic. While American financiers have been thrilled to receive Chinese T-Bond investment, it is a deception to claim that what the North American population must fear is China’s competitive force. The American public’s own unquenchable thirst for product buying is what ought to be blamed as a starting point. Financial crises have less to do with the productive sector of the economy than with the banking and stock market industries. It’s through the big buck mergers in which mega corporations brutalize each other that the population is left sclerotic and the productive sector disabled.
This situation is no less the case in France. The elite is certainly conservative, but it has also taken advantage of a push within French culture of a moral philosophy and ethical insistence whose purported aim is to get beyond the differences. Although derided for its lack of uniformity, the French NON is crafted from what that difference involves on the field. Still, rhetoric blooms with the spring air. Upon examining a recent article by one of the French elite’s foremost sociologists, Edgar Morin (“Les lendemains du non,” Le Monde, May 26), the path to achieving that peace beyond difference stretches by way of defacing the adversary as “Communists-Trotskyites” in words, to better smash it as object later. Only afterward can peace be drawn on a bed of lilies deprived of song and dreams.
In the end, President Jacques Chirac’s defeat allocution remains striking by its deafness. Chirac embarrassingly skirted the results as the French elite has done throughout the campaign. His wife went out on a last minute socialite tour trying to portray the population as her children with whom she pleaded to keep the family honor intact.
As usual, the only ears on the right to hear the message clearly were those of the maverick Nicolas Sarkozy. No current French politician is more Machiavellian, more devious than the fox-snake hybrid and Downing Street-admired Sarkozy. As head of the governing UMP party, his Sunday speech was a scroll down a list of every piece of litigation the French NON voters voiced. Atypically, he pledged to honor them all. The only glitch was that Sarkozy’s party and government are behind them all: from destroying the 35-hour anti-unemployment policy, to harassing the French public sector, to privatizing and accumulating joblessness, to subjecting the psychoanalytic establishment to political law, reforming education on Taylorist assembly-line principles, and destroying the only job security program for the creative arts in the world (the “intermittents du spectacle”) The list goes on.
His shrewd smirk has obviously never tasted the stench of the tear gas and pepper spray of social and political insurrection-which are decidedly the only means by which the French economic machine will honor opposition claims.
The main item of litigation is anything but fear. It is the adamant, stubborn erosion of France’s welfare state, akin to the Amazon forest, due to “market forces”. The population yearns only for its reinforcement. But the elite do not speak these social terms: “unemployment” is the only shrunk down issue, after apart from public safety, its smokescreen jargon names.
France is the world’s fifth economic power. If lack of job security is the handmaiden of economic growth, then what is it all worth? This is the question to which the larger part of the French electorate responded: “not much”.
Like in the US, its elite clinch to stock options while the population rots. Corruption, white collar crime, massive in level, is well protected by the law, and thus shades in spectacular comparison to the ever so visible petty crime stemming from “immigrants”. The population has little choice but to use “referenda” as its only tool of opposition, when the nation’s youth are not corralled like cattle on Museum-lined streets when asking for a brighter day.
With the retreat and dissolution of France’s revolutionary left through the 1980s in the name of social-democratic reform, the French political terrain was groomed for “la pensée unique”. Its principles are that democracy has proved itself historically the best political system for the largest amount of people, and that capitalist economic planning with decreased state involvement over the specific economy is its motor though democracy and capitalism are claimed to be two irreducible entities. Back in the 1990s, and in the name of solidarity, French big business pleaded with the population to release its hold on the welfare state due to the ferocious competition coming from the “authoritarian” Asian tigers.
Then the construction bubble burst in the Far East. The French and German stock exchanges bulged in convulsion from the hot money flooding their respective pits. Yet the elation of split stocks never translated into shared stripes.
These were some of the issues at stake. The population took advantage of a serious vote, acting on its future and the terms of international collaboration. In a “not-in-my-name” act, the majority has attempted to paralyze the political class from moving forward in a program that has made life in France more expensive, less secure in terms of jobs, and all the more attractive to international finance. Production is at the basis of a democratic economy, not investment. Sunday’s poll was a NON against the Constitutional Treaty as well as against Chirac. No ambivalent disjunction and therefore no mystery: were only one listening to its terms.
As the May 29 communiqué from ATTAC declared (“La victoire d’un peuple debout et informé”) :
‘The French have just said no to the constitutional treaty. An overwhelmingly democratic and European no. As such, citizens female and male alike first and foremost said no to neoliberalism, of which the text subjected to referendum is an eloquent defense and illustration. This no is also a yes to an independent, internationalist, social, ecological and feminist Europe; a yes to a Europe standing together in solidarity with the rest of the world: first with the South and then with future generations.
But it is also a yes to democracy, shamefully derided by the State propaganda acting in combination with a media system whose actors all but entirely bore an unprecedented partialness and offensive haughtiness toward the ‘black sheep’ who were audacious enough not to literally accept the ‘yes’ parties’ arguments from authority. With their ballots, female and male citizens proved allergic to being brainwashed. This is why this event, whose value ought to stand as an example, has a historical dimension with important repercussions for the rest of Europe and the world.
ATTAC pays homage to the tens and tens of thousands of citizens who thoroughly committed themselves to the battle of the referendum.”
NORMAN MADARASZ is Visiting Professor of Contemporary French Philosophy (Bolsista CAPES/Brasil) at Universidade Gama Filho, Rio de Janeiro. He welcomes comments at email@example.com.