France's stunning "non" in Sunday's referendum on the European Union constitution accomplishes two goals: it gives both globalization and Jacques Chirac, the nation's 72-year-old president -- known to some as "Europe's dinosaur" -- a swift kick in the derriere. The televised news coverage said it all. First, cameras flashed on the No camp, where burly workers flexed their biceps high in old-fashioned clench-fisted salutes to what they viewed as a grand victory. Then came shots of the Yes camp, where pale bureaucrats in suits slumped and scrounged to find some positive spin on the disastrous results. Chirac -- looking terribly old and gray -- offered a classic French pout. The truth is, the victory may be brawny (55 percent No to 45 percent Yes), but in the end it will prove terribly illusory.
Change is coming to Europe, whether voters in France like it or not. And this referendum, which Chirac himself decided to hold, should simply have been a no-brainer. After all, when it comes down to it, the French were voting on a document they suggested, wrote and from which they ostensibly stood to benefit. And it held no shockers: Basically, the French were asked to vote on a constitution that guarantees freedom of speech and religion, shelter, education, collective bargaining and fair working conditions. It also makes the bold move of enshrining the EU flag, designating Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" as the EU anthem and gives official recognition to the euro. Far from frightening stuff.
But in France, the vote stood for much more than just a few rules on paper. It represented, as Serge July, the cantankerous editor-in-chief of the nation's liberal daily newspaper Liberation points out on Monday, a no to "capitalism", a no to the "elites in Brussels," and a no to "all those pleading for the emergence of a system to make Europe into a political power." It was also a no to the expanded Europe of 25 members, including Polish plumbers who the French fear are hungry for their jobs and possible Turkish hoards wearing (quelle horreur!) Muslim headscarves who the French fear even more. And it was a no to the market-driven way of life, so anathema to the poetic French vision of the social state.
Most importantly, it was a no to the tired policies of Jacques Chirac -- who in truth, has done a lousy job of explaining to his people what the EU is and what sort of changes they will need to swallow in coming years if they want to maintain the lifestyles they so cherish.
La vie est belle, non?
And anyone who has spent time in France knows, the lifestyle -- not to mention the abundant wine and cheese that accompanies it -- is stunningly good. Think six week vacations, 35-hour work-weeks, strong unions unafraid to call nationwide strikes, good childcare options, fat pensions and a bulging class of fonctionnaires happy to take all the state will give. Fear of losing all that sweetness has France trembling. For change does, indeed, hurt. As such, despite all their pro-worker rallies, slogans and calls of Liberte, the French have become closet conservatives. As much as they want to be part of a growing, entrepreneurial world, they are not willing to make the sacrifices necessary for 21st century life.
Neither of course are their erstwhile pals, the Germans. Indeed, both nations are suffering from disillusionment. In Germany, the nation is stagnated by unemployment, frustration, and a seeming inability to spark an aging society used to being comforted rather than challenged or stimulated. Voters voiced their dissatisfaction by delivering German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats a stinging defeat in the state of North-Rhine Westphalia last weekend. Now federal elections have been pushed up a full year -- and many predict that Schroeder -- like Chirac will end his term in disgrace.
France, too, has become a nation of complainers. And their favorite past-time is jabbing at the EU, which they view as too domineering, too anti-French, and to ready to force niggling changes on them. They are also terrified that a larger EU will give Germany more power and turn them into an even more marginalized former giant. July rightly points out in his editorial the self-aggrandizing nature of the vote. France proves it "exists because all alone, it is able to unhinge Europe," the sickened editor writes of his nation's hunger to prove its own power. "On your knees, Europe, in face of our no!" July calls the vote a "popular disaster" and headlines Monday's paper "The (nation's) Most Negative Day."
Europe's broken motor
One thing that the French No does is throw a crimp in Germany-French relations. And let's face it -- despite outward attempts at warmth between Chirac and Schroeder -- France and Germany's relationship is more platonic than passionate. The supposed motor of Europe coughs and wheezes more than it hums. Especially now. In fact, in his run-up to defeat, Chirac paid little heed to what a no vote would do to Germany -- namely leave an already deflated Schroeder completely isolated on the Europe front. Instead, he focused -- King Lear-like -- on his own political unravelling.
Still, on Sunday, Schroeder presented a brave face and continued his seemingly endless stint of smiling through adversity. "The failure of the referendum is a setback for the constitutional process, but it is not its end," he said. "It is also not the end of the French-German relationship." No, but it's far from a Kodak moment either.
For his part, EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso called the vote a "problem" which has to be solved. British Foreign Minister Jack Straw called for a "period of reflection" on the EU's future. Of course, there will be little time for that in Holland, where the Dutch are likely to axe the treaty themselves on Wednesday. Part of the problem for Chirac is that he has been in power a full decade and has little to show for it. During the Iraq war, he thumbed his nose at America and incurred the wrath of US President George W. Bush in order to win the love of his people. Now, he's lost that, too. By trying to ram the EU down his people's throat -- rather than sitting down years ago to patiently explain it to them -- he's lost his grand vision of creating an EU that would serve as a counterweight to the US. Indeed, Chirac failed to present the constitution -- or anything about the EU -- to his citizens in a way they could understand. Instead, all has been offered as a simple fait accompli. From that perspective, the French No reads as an understandable plea for democracy. Still, it is terribly regrettable.
The Bush camp isn't saying so; officially, they support the EU. But secretly, when they are alone on the ranch in Crawford, there must be some heavy snickering taking place. Bush has made no secret of his dislike for Chirac. Yet certainly he must be pleased that the silly days of open animosity and "freedom fries" may be coming to an end. Now it is Chirac -- not Bush -- who's been French fried.