[VIEWPOINT]What a French ‘no’ means

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[VIEWPOINT]What a French ‘no’ means

Is Europe about to experience what would be the equivalent of a political tsunami? On May 29, France is going to vote by referendum on the European constitutional treaty, and according to recent and concordant public opinion polls, a majority of Frenchmen are inclined to say “no.” How could it be so, and what could be the consequences for the European Union and her clout in the world of a French “No”?
France, along with Germany, is one of the two key founding members of the European project, and traditionally France has seen in Europe an extension of herself, the unique way to carry her national ambition through other means. If a majority of French were to say “no” to the constitutional treaty, it would be the equivalent of saying “no” to their past recent history and to revisit their positive lecture of their European achievements.
What is happening? Seen from the outside world, in particular from regions such as Asia and Latin America that are striving to deepen their regional integration, Europeans should be proud of what they have accomplished and offered to the world, a model of reconciliation, peace and prosperity. But this apparently is not seen as such by a majority of French people, who are going to use the upcoming referendum to express their frustrations with their own political, social and economic conditions but also their anger with Europe’s present, if not their fear for Europe’s future.
A referendum, especially in a country like France, can be a very tricky experience. Charles de Gaulle was the first to suffer from it in 1969, when he chose to resign after a majority of French said “no” to his proposal to reform the organization of power between regions and the central authority. People always tend to answer to a different question than the one they are asked.
In 2005, if a majority of French were indeed to say “no,” it would not be so much to the European constitutional treaty. No one, or nearly no one, has read the text, which is long, technical and rather confusing for non-experts in constitutional matters. They will be saying “no” much more to their government that is highly unpopular, not to mention their president or the political class at large.
On the left of the political spectrum, France is experiencing something reminiscent of 1968, a nihilistic instinct: Let us destroy what exists and let us see what will arise from the chaos that will follow. France is bored and Europe is boring; Let us enter a phase of creative destruction.
On the right, a fear of the future, and in particular the equation made in an absurd manner, between a “yes” to the constitutional treaty and a “yes” to the entrance of Turkey into the EU, is fueling nationalistic instincts based on fear and prejudice. Desire for another Europe stemming from the left and simple fear of the other coming from the right are combining forces to create a powerful anti-European front, one that is more than welcomed by the extreme right and the extreme left, which are traditionally anti-European.
But does it matter really, if the French were to say “no” to the constitutional treaty? One would simply have to return to the previous, more imperfect treaty, that of Nice. Why make such a fuss about it? Without sounding like an arrogant Frenchman, a “no” coming from France would have greater political and psychological repercussions than a “no” coming from the Danes or from the British. It is a question of size, history and calendar. Great Britain, for example, is not only the last country to vote by referendum in 2006, it has also a tradition of reacting in a very reserved manner toward the Union. A British “no” would not be such a blow to Europe compared to a French one.
Coming right in the middle of the ratification process, a French “no” would constitute a strong encouragement to the “no” camp in the rest of Europe and would be a very destabilizing signal for the entire European project. One of the creators of the Union would start to unravel its creation, out of an outburst of political irresponsibility, certainly encouraged by the fact that since the last and spectacular wave of enlargement in 2004, which saw 10 new countries, France no longer feels in control of the European project, one she initiated and influenced decisively for so long.
But a French “no” would not simply be a blow to France’ s ambitions in Europe. It will lead to a situation of deep uncertainty, if not relative chaos. For all those who are watching Europe from a distance, with a combination of sympathy and incomprehension, the present and confusing evolution can only have one significance: Do not take Europe for granted. It may still progress and enlarge, or it may also unfortunately stagnate and decline. French voters have a big responsibility ahead of them.

* The writer is a senior adviser at the French Institute for International Relations.

by Dominique Moisi
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