Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

The French referendum debate

The French press, unsurprisingly considering their hard-fought referendum is due at the end of the week, has been analysing the EU like never before, with major newspapers Le Monde and Le Figaro devoting reams of copy to dissecting that damned constitution from every possible angle. It’s a great shame more of the French discussion isn’t filtering to this side of the Channel, ‘cos there’s some interesting ideas and interpretations being kicked around.

Le Figaro currently reports the two sides split 53% to 47%, to the “Non” vote’s advantage, though also notes that 29% still haven’t made their final choice with just four days to go. These figures are based on an expected turnout of 67%.

Meanwhile, Val�ry Giscard d’Estaing – old adversary of Roy Jenkins while he headed the Commission and the man responsible for drawing up the bloody thing in the first place – has been on the attack to win his fellow countrymen over to his baby. He actually makes some rather good points (as well as some overblown and unjustified ones, which I’ll neglect to quote), and ones which would apply just as well to Britain, with the appropriate name substitutions, as to France (my substandard translations):

“1. Il n’existe aucune possibilit� d’aboutir � un consensus des vingt-cinq Etats europ�ens sur les th�mes, d’ailleurs contradictoires, avanc�s au cours de la campagne du r�f�rendum en France par les partisans du non. Nos partenaires estiment que la Convention est d�j� all�e tr�s loin � et pour certains trop loin � en direction des demandes fran�aises. Nous n’obtiendrons pas mieux. Nous obtiendrions sans doute moins.”

“1. There is no possibility of a consensus among the twenty-five European States on the areas, which are often contradictory, advanced during the course of the French referendum’s No campaign. Our [EU] partners feel that the Convention has already conceded much – and for some too much – towards French requests. We will not obtain better. We would undoubtedly obtain worse.”

“2. Le projet de Constitution ne menace personne. Son seul objet est de corriger les d�fauts actuels de l’Union europ�enne, jug�e trop compliqu�e, peu efficace, et insuffisamment d�mocratique. Le rejet du projet nous ram�nerait purement et simplement � la situation actuelle, qui fait l’objet de toutes les critiques, sans nouvel espoir d’en sortir.”

“2. The Constitutional project does not threaten anybody. Its only objective is to correct the current deficiencies of the European Union, which is considered too complicated, inefficient and insufficiently democratic. Rejection of the constitution would purely and simply take us back to the current situation, which is the source of all these criticisms, without any hope of relief.”

Meanwhile, in Le Monde, Pierre de Lauzun (a deputy manager of the French Banking Federation, apparently) has an interesting alternative take where we’d all be better off scrapping the current constitution and starting all over again:

“Au fond, on sait que l’Europe ne se construit que sur la base des Etats-nations. C’est pour cela que ce qu’on appelle Constitution est un trait� international. Mais on n’en tire pas la conclusion : le mythe de l’Europe substitution est une utopie, et l’Europe est d’abord la mise en commun d’outils, dont les v�ritables autorit�s politiques, nationales, ont jug� qu’il valait mieux les mettre en �uvre ensemble que s�par�s. Et, si on voulait aller plus loin, il faudrait d�finir positivement ce que les peuples d’Europe ont en commun, objectivement, et cesser de proc�der par construction abstraite.

“Mais on a pr�f�r� poursuivre le mythe politique. Faute de contenu, la solution retenue est donc proc�durale : prendre des principes abstraits et juger de toute d�cision � partir d’une d�clinaison de ces principes. Le proc�dural et le juridique envahissent enti�rement le champ du d�bat. Il ne faut donc pas s’�tonner de l’indiff�rence, et parfois de l’hostilit� des peuples, malgr� leur bienveillance a priori. L’Europe est ce paradoxe d’une construction non d�mocratique mais � fondement d�mocratique. Elle reste plus le fruit d’une volont� des �lites que d’une construction populaire. Chaque �tape a �t� d�cid�e en haut et ratifi�e au mieux a posteriori. D�mocratique, son fonctionnement ne l’est pas plus, malgr� le’Parlement europ�en’ : il n’y a pas de d�bat public entre deux �quipes ou deux programmes, sanctionn� par les urnes, dans un espace politique commun.”

“At heart, they know that Europe is not built on the basis of nation states. It’s for that reason that what they call the Constitution is actually an international treaty. But they do not draw the right conclusion from this: the myth of substituting Europe is a Utopia; Europe is above all the pooling of tools, whose true political authorities – national – judged were better to implement together than separately. And, if they want to go further, it is necessary positively to define what the people of Europe have in common, objectively, and to cease trying to proceed with a constitution that’s so abstract.”

“But they prefer to continue with the political myth. Lacking content, the adopted solution has become procedural: taking abstract principles and judging any decisions based on their variation from them. The procedural and legal approach entirely invades the language of debate. We should not therefore be surprised by the indifference and sometimes hostility of the people, in spite of their previous benevolence. Europe is the paradox of a being an undemocratic construction based on a democratic foundation. It remains more the fruit of the will of the elites than of the people. Each stage was decided from above and was ratified, as well as it could be, after the fact. Being democratic is not its aim, in spite of the European Parliament’: there is no public discussion between two parties or two programmes, sanctioned by the ballot boxes, in a common political space.”

These are just two small examples from one day’s press coverage, and d’Estaing is probably a poor choice to give an indication of the level of debate. In terms of detail, genuine desire to understand the implications, and respect for its audience’s intelligence it far surpasses anything this country saw in the run-up to the general election (remember Polly sodding Toynbee and her “nose peg” bollocks?), and has doubtless already surpassed whatever passes for a debate over the constitution in the run up to our own referendum – should it ever happen.

Of course, round the edges there is political spin from both sides, and on the extremes have been name-calling, muck-slinging and stupidness, but the central debate itself has not felt the need to resort to simplifying what is not a simple matter. There has been little of the recent British tendency to focus in on single issues at the expence of the wider picture.

The French people are being genuinely well served by their press and are responding with genuine interest and engagement as a result in a debate which, in this country, has yet to catch the interest of the Prime Minister, let alone the man in the street. Vive la france, as they say.


  1. Given your observation that the French people are considering the constitution and its effects, which seems to be born out by the fact that the Constitution itself has been the best seller in the bookshops. Does this not undermine the idea being put about that the French will not be voting on the constitution but on their dislike of their present government etc. If they do eventually vote no would this not be a clear indication that they reject the constitution for its sake and not as a method of booting the French political elites.

  2. The trouble is, no one knows why the people will vote the way they do. It's all conjecture, occasionally based on small poll samples. Some will vote based on an informed choice, some won't.

    The apparently wide interest in the constitution in the press and via bookshop sales in France could indicate a greater level of knowledge among the population as a whole, but not necessarily.

    Issues which technically shouldn't be included in the referendum – such as Chirac's domestic politics – will certainly play a part in some people's decisions, but how many, no one really knows, just as no one really knows how many people actually read the constitutional coverage in the press rather than flick straight to the sport pages, or manage to get through those books they've been buying rather than leave them on the coffee table to try and look intelligent.

    On top of that, the readers of Le Monde and Le Figaro are a tiny percentage of the French population, and the sales of the constitution and explanatory books on the thing are likewise minute compared to the whole electorate. The majority undoubtedly remain ignorant of the whole thing (as is always the case with politics) – but the point is that in France there is at least sufficient coverage and information for them to make an informed choice should they so wish.

    This is the trouble with referendums – all you get is a yes/no – there's no box for an explanation of why. Even exit polls are unlikely to give a particularly accurate indication. As such, motivations cannot be assertained and lessons cannot be learned.

  3. Yeah yeah yeah, the French are great. Actually I agree with you – to my own surprise – that there are some good arguments being vented across La Manche. But you ignore the fucking obvious fact that French national newspapers sell about five times fewer copies than British papers – partly cause French papers are so dull, po-faced, over-intellectual, and generally up their own derriere. So in fact this is merely proof – again – of the French elite talking to itself. I reckon the average French johnny DOES care about the Constitution, but he doesn't give a fuck what they think about it in Paris, or in Le Monde (pitiful circulation outside the capital), and that of course is part of the whole problem in continental Europe – disengagement between the political class and the people. Hence the reason why the Dutch will, I believe, vote no, and possibly the French too.
    The British papers, which you decry, at least engage their readers: they are irreverent, funny, readable, vivid, argumentative, vibrant, and popular – perhaps the best press in the world. I speak, of course, as a UK journo.
    Anyway i think you'd be surprised – if we had a referendum here I think we'd have a very good debate too – but we need to have the referfuckingrendum! Blair should swallow his fears and give us a plebiscite, and at last we might see a good debate in this country, on something very serious, in contrast to the fatuous squabbles we saw – as you say – the GE. Fat chance tho. As soon as he sniffs a possibility Teflon Tony will back away from giving us a vote. sigh.

  4. Yeah, France's Posh 'n' Becks is BHL and Simone de Beauvoir…HARDLY. They love endemol too y'know.

  5. Two interesting places to browse are the forum at Liberation – a bastion of the left-wing no vote where they discuss the demerits of economic competition (although I think the paper is editorially 'yes')and the Liberte Cherie forum ( – economically-liberal pressure group).

    I agree with you about low newspaper sales/unrepresentativeness, but you can still get a pretty good idea in general about what the momentum is and what's eating average French voters. Two things seem reasonably clear from the polls – the number of those believing that a no vote can happen has rocketed (as opposed to how they themselves will vote) and so has the number of people who think a renegotiation is possible.

    The main impression that I get is that this is hardly at all a referendum on the French government (or if it is, then indirectly) – for the left-wing no vote (which is where the momentum is) it's almost exclusively in one way or another about social vs liberal Europe, and protectionist fears in the wake of EU enlargement.

    Apparently 58% of French people have now read it (1 in 10 say all the way through!) and another 30% say they haven't read it but are acquainted with the main details.

    It's the idea of all the post-no renegotiation that's likely to go on that depresses me – and it *will* go on, politically, with UK/French showdowns so Chirac can look good domestically. While I think the liberal current in Europe is now too strong to be overpowered by the social one, the renegotiation efforts themselves would be hell in terms of things like getting on with CAP reform, liberalising services, tougher implementation of single market rules etc.

  6. Hullo Singe de Nez,

    if you read Wednesday's Le Figaro, you'll find not one but two articles implying that the French government is essentially resigned to defeat in Sunday's referendum. Lots of people agree that would mean Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin's resignation or dismissal.

  7. Pingback: What is the EU for? (Part 2) | Nosemonkey’s EUtopia