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Why a French ‘Non’ is a vote for Europe

The only real loser will be big business if the European constitution is rejected, argues Tom Gill

CGT and Force Ouvriere in the “No” camp. Only the CFDT, the union confederation that is often seen as a little too close to business and Government, is in favour.

For many trade unionists and other progressives in France, the constitutional treaty reads more like a document produced by the World Trade Organisation than a 21st century Magna Carta for a brave new citizens’ Europe.

Laurent Fabius, the former French premier who now leads the opponents in the Socialist Party, argues: “The finance and economics in the text are clear”, but from a social perspective the EU constitution “is more vague. The text risks leading us towards intensified competition which will undermine our social model. Everyone will lose. The more advanced countries because of the pressure on wages, social protection, tax and public services, but also new members who will be left behind without our help.”

Fabius’ opposition is symptomatic of the strength of feeling against the constitution throughout French society. The Socialists have traditionally been as keen on Europe as their rivals, the Gaullists, who are now led by French President Jacques Chirac. But the Socialists, although formally in favour, are deeply divided — and the Gaullists’ lacklustre campaign, full of mixed messages, betrays serious misgivings too.

While Chirac claims the constitution safeguards the French model of promoting industry and protecting citizens, his up-and-coming presidential rival Nicolas Sarkozy told a “Yes” rally recently: “The best social model is the one that gives a job to everyone. That is no longer ours. The Europe that we want also compels us to change France.

“One cannot wish something for Europe and do the inverse for France”, he said, outlining his vision of a Blairite low-tax, property-owning, businessfriendly society. Sarkozy is more convincing about where the EU constitution would take France.

But the French still seem to be wedded to a dirigism that has produced rail transport and a car manufacturing industry that laissez-faire Britain can only envy.

This pride in the French model saw them back the monetarist Maastricht Treaty only by a very narrow majority in 1992 and 3 years later, in what was the biggest popular rebellion since 1968, see off conservative premier Alan Juppe after his Maastricht-inspired attack on public sector pensions.

The subsequent launch of the euro in 2001 was greeted with little enthusiasm. Amid sharp price rises and the austerity imposed by the Stability and Growth Pact, many now think they might have been better off sticking with the French Franc. The 2003 expansion of the EU into the low-wage, welfare-light states of eastern Europe wasn’t celebrated much either: Subsidies through the Common Agricultural Policy to French farmers are now under threat and a deregulatory free-for-all could hit much cherished acquis sociaux. The pro-American attitude taken by new member states over the Iraq war was seen as the ultimate betrayal of their European dream. For many, where Europe once brought prosperity and peace, it is now associated with poverty and war.

It is on these wider issues, as well as the constitution, that the French will be voting on this Sunday.

Many simply reject any further erosion of national sovereignty the constitution would bring.

But a large number will vote “No” because it enshrines in law a Europe where corporations now have far too much power and working people too little. Says Fabius: “Some people think it is too late to build a strong, social, humane and generous Europe. I don’t. A ‘No’ allows change, ‘Yes’ is too often resignation.” The “Yes” campaigners say a “No” vote will derail the entire European project. In truth, it might help get it back on track.

Of course, the French might say “Oui” this Sunday. But then there’s the Dutch vote next week and eventually the British referendum. That, though, is another story.


About revoltingeurope

Writer on Europe's Left, trade union and social movements @tomgilltweets or @revoltingeurope


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