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France’s Magnificent Non!

Itinerant pundits touching down briefly in Paris lost no time in stigmatizing the French for their resounding Non! in last week’s referendum on the proposed Constitution for Europe. The French were charged with selfishness, self-absorption, nostalgia for a lost empire, unwholesome obsession with Descartes and Jacobinism and other crimes too frightful for individual citation.

Actually the French did something both logical and heroic. The logic, supposedly a French trait, is simple enough: European Union has always been sold as integration in which living standards would be leveled up, not down; in which Europe would act as counterweight to America.

But since the European Union has produced a leveling down, particularly since the recruitment to the EU of poorer nations (and lower wages) in Eastern Europe, and since the new constitution seemed to ratify closer alliance with the world’s number one imperial power, logic dictated a Non and 55 per cent of French voters, in a 70 per cent turn-out, accepted the dictate.

The heroism comes in the form of the firmness of those French voters in rejecting a hysterical chorus from the European elites to the effect that their Non would spell catastrophe, that Europe would disintegrate and all the work of forty years go for nought, that the forces behind Non were those of the right-wing nationalist Le Pen.

The French rejected the scaremongering, sensibly enough. The EU will not disintegrate, since the Treaty of Nice is still in effect. Le Pen was quiet and the sinews of the Non vote were on the Left. The nationalism was not evil but an assertion of decent priorities.

All that’s happened is the rejection of a proposed Constitution with clauses on human and social rights markedly inferior to various national codes including France’s, with familiar stipulations on “free trade” (ratcheting down of wage scales, job loss, evisceration of social protections). Two days Holland rejected the constitution by an even more emphatic margin. As things stand, France’s Non is enough to doom the Constitution, since the votes by 25 countries had to be unanimous.

The French are not “anti-Europe”. As one young French trade unionist told a reporter, “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?”

The entity envisaged by the German bankers who drafted the Maastrict treaty proposed a Europe where iron economic stipulations denied any member country the most modest Keynesian antidotes to recession. Deficit spending was rigidly circumscribed, reflationary tools forbidden. As usual, bankers’ stipulations had a chilling effect on European economies which have mostly been feeble.

The British have fought tirelessly to prevent harmonization upward of social services. The French, which have some of the best public services in the world ­ in health, education and transport, for example ­ have duly noted Britain’s disastrous privatization of its railways, its poor health services and its languishing schools. That kind of Europe does not appeal to them.

The European elites will try to shrug off Sunday’s result as Gallic exceptionalism, best ignored. Back in 2002 Irish voters rejected the Treaty of Nice, and were rewarded for doing their democratic duty by Eurocrats insisting they vote again. After months of bullying the Irish grudgingly reversed their opinion. It will be harder to do this to the French, particularly as the margin and the turnout were both hefty.

French and maybe European politics will take a step to the left. The French Socialists will probably kick out their leader, who bet all on Oui. The French Communist Party led a coalition of the left for Non, and its credibility is now much improved. Germany’s left will be heartened at this smack in the eye for Chancellor Schroder, whose social democratic/green coalition called for France to vote Yes.

After more the thirty years world-wide of the rigid “free market” economics launched in the early 1970s, the popular verdicts ­ where such are permitted ­ are slowly coming in. Across Latin America “liberalization” (codeword for slash and burn capitalism) is a dirty word. All eyes are on Hugo Chavez and Venezuela. In India hundreds of millions of voters registered their discontent last year. In America discontent simmers, though as yet there is no vehicle for protest at the polls since both major parties are in agreement.

France and Holland spoke last week for the millions in Europe who have seen their social protections and their wage packets dwindle. That Non! could be the intimation of a new era, when the policies of the bankers and the financiers who have ruled for 35 years could at last be facing serious challenge.

Laura in Egypt

Now here’s a story that seems to sum up very important aspects of the human condition, particularly in the educational field: the substitution of better fed students and teachers, the better to impress the beauteous American emissary. How Dickens would have relished this story. At my school, visits by dignitaries were attended with similar efforts to spruce the place up, though in our Scottish fastness, we were all plump from haggis and a steady diet of Greek and Latin verbs, administered by my classics master, C.M.H. Miller, by far the most frightening man I have ever met, and–surely the two are more synonymous than progressives care to imagine–a wonderful teacher.

Al-Hayat, London, May 30, 2005

CAIRO – Egyptian Parliament member Hamdi Hassan demanded an immediate investigation into a report that the Education Department, in preparing for a visit by US First Lady Laura Bush to a school in Alexandria last week, replaced the administration and students of the entire school in order to present a better image to the visiting dignitary.

The MP said in his official investigation request that “there is no talk in Alexandria right now except on this forgery scandal that took place during the visit of Mrs. Bush to the school of Um-Al- Qura.” He revealed that, “The school’s entire administration and students were replaced with a different administration and students in order to perform their own show in front of Mrs. Bush.”

He added that the Education Department officials, in preparing for the visit to the school funded by USAID money, “ordered the teachers and students to stay home, and prepared alternatives for them. The Department ordered the administrators and teachers of another distinguished school to be prepared and brought them to Um- Al-Qura school to perform the show.” MP Hamdi said in his letter, “that this trick was not noticed by Mrs. Laura and her intelligence bodies. But what would have been the case had she found out?”

He added, “It seems that the appearance of the school’s original administrators and students would not have been appreciated by the US First Lady, as she would have seen poor faces obviously suffering malnutrition. Thus, Egyptian officials wanted her to see, instead, an administrators and children who looked better to prove that they have benefited from the traces of the generous US aid aimed at developing schools and the education system.”

 

 

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Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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