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Last Updated: Monday, 23 May 2005, 13:02 GMT 14:02 UK
France and the EU constitution
John Simpson
By John Simpson
BBC world affairs editor

There's not much sign here in Paris that France has just entered one of the most important weeks in its modern history. Some tattered 'yes' and 'no' placards on the walls, a few newspaper headlines at the kiosks, a couple of items on each night's main television news.

Posters for referendum
Posters urging yes and no on city streets

Yet everyone I speak to in Paris seems surprisingly nervous about the outcome. And I haven't yet found anyone who thinks the result next Sunday will be a 'yes'.

That's something we can't be sure about yet. In every referendum I've reported on in France since the one which led to General de Gaulle's downfall in 1969, a lot of people seemed to make up their minds at the last minute.

This time the balance is even more delicate than usual. A referendum is a useful way of telling an unpopular government that you don't like it.

On the other hand, a reasonable majority of French people have always backed the European Union, and as the time gets shorter and the politicians get more nervous the word is going out that a 'No' vote will damage France and the European Union irrevocably.

Media support

In other words, the government and the big majority of newspapers and television stations which support it are saying, don't use this particular referendum to have a crack at President Chirac - wait till later.

The far right and the far left support a 'No' vote.


As I walked down the street on Saturday, leaflets from the National Front, the Communist Party and at least one Trotskyist faction were thrust into my hand, all asking me to vote 'No'.

The 'No' campaign also includes various members of M. Chirac's own party who - for one reason or other - have fallen out with him.

Nothing unusual in that: I don't suppose a big vote on the EU has happened in any European country without opposition from the far left, the far right, and some disgruntled centrists.

Electorate unconvinced

But this referendum is different.

Large numbers of people who would ordinarily support the EU are seriously thinking of voting 'No' on Sunday; and it isn't simply in order to teach Jacques Chirac a lesson.

This vote has touched the delicate nerve which detects when something really important for the national life is at stake.

The 'Yes' campaign hasn't yet managed to convince enough people that France's own essential interests will be protected under the new European constitution.

Most people I have spoken to here think France will be diminished by the new system. The 'No' arguments are full of references to national sovereignty and the control of foreigners.

It has taken the French a long time to fall out of love with the European idea.

The 'Yes' campaign hasn't been well handled. Sending a copy of the constitution to every householder may have been a worthy democratic move, but it wasn't very popular.

In the building where my flat is, the letter-boxes were jammed with 'Yes' literature. The vast text was too finely printed, making it seem like a dodgy insurance prospectus, and I thought the explanation that came with it, treated me like an idiot.

Plenty of other people in the building may have thought the same way: our communal dustbins were full of them that evening.

It has taken the French a long time to fall out of love with the European idea. Understandably, they favoured the European Economic Community when they were the dominant force inside it.

As it expanded to take in most of the rest of Western Europe, French political influence waned and the French language vanished from its corridors and committee rooms.

And now that much of Eastern Europe, too, has either joined or hopes to do so, France's position is weaker than ever.

The French voters' reported hostility to Turkish membership probably has less to do with Islam and more to do with a general annoyance that Europe scarcely looks like Europe any more.

The basic problem with the European ideal is that it has been too successful. Europe is vastly bigger, and a good deal richer than any single nation on earth; who wouldn't want to join it if they could?

But of course running a gigantic association of thirty or more countries means that no individual country, not even the big ones like Britain and France, can have much of a say.

Thirty years ago, when it was still the European Community and there were only nine members, it was heresy to suggest that there might be an upper limit to membership, beyond which all the grand ambitions to turn Europe into one vast super state would come to nothing.

But now, if France on Sunday and the Netherlands on 1 June, both vote against the new constitution, it will be very hard to resuscitate the basic idea.

In that case, Europe would have to continue as it is: an immense, hugely successful trading-bloc.

In the end, it will all come down to whether people like my apartment-block neighbours are more worried about losing their identity within a vast new EU than they are about the consequences of voting 'No'.

And I wouldn't like to guess which way it will go.

Your comments:

The main point of debate that I've heard is whether or not the EU constitution will defend the French social model or replace it with an "ultra-liberale" Anglo-Saxon version. "Liberal" being almost an insult in France. Both camps claim to be defending the French model and - l'exception culturel - but both can't be correct. As an acquaintance put it, Jose Bove and Le Pen say vote no, I vote yes - Hollade and Chirac say vote yes, I vote no. What shall I do? Stay at home.
Andrew Roberts, Montpellier

Dear Sir, As an Australian (now with Brit citizenship) living in England I may have a different view. I offer the following. The post war advent of communications allowed the European nations to start to talk, at all levels, for the first time ever. Whilst trade crosses cultural boundaries in a matter of days, beliefs and identities take generations to follow on. The Economic Union was an excellent idea, the constitution, for the next two hundred years at least, is awful. I vote no.
Bill Fisher, Clevedon England

Well summarised - however somewhat different within the UK and Ireland - whilst almost certainly the Scots and the Irish would vote Yes the English Home Counties would oppose and the No voters would win the day
Tom Wilson, Bathgate, Scotland

Interesting article as usual from John. Perhaps we are looking at the beginning of the end of the European Super-state ideal?
Richard, Reading

I am a Brit living an working for a French multinational based in the south of France. One of the key factors in employing me and others like me is to make the management of the business more 'Anglo-Saxon' or as I see it translating French business culture for foreigners. In the office corridors 'yes' is the prevailing sentiment yet in the bars and restaurants and round dinner tables the talk is 'no', with concern is about losing their social systems and further dilution of French culture and traditions. Philosophy is compulsory in schools here and that there is no clear answer yet is not procrastination but a self examination. It seems that one can't stop the French being, err French.
Michael Kain, Avignon, France

I simply can't vote for a political organisation where some of its most influential leaders are unelected. I sincerely hope that the French feel the same!
Michael Law, Berkshire

I agree with Mr. Simpson's views and I bet that the no vote will prevail. I think it will be a disgrace, especially coming from the French. They have been a very large recipient a EEC largesse - especially the French farmers, in the past but as a tax-paying EU citizen (I am Italian although I now live in Toronto) I do not see why part of my taxes must finance what they call "the French cultural heritage" .

The world is changing and France must change too. It will be not pleasant but to insist, as they do, that their social system is the best in the world is just fooling themselves. France must re-think her role and come to terms with the fact that no one single European country can go alone in the world anymore. Their Gallic pride ? Swallow it, and the sooner the better, for France and Europe as well.
Pietro Gambino, Toronto, Canada

John Simpson hits the nail on the head. The yes campaign have done a dreadful job of selling their point of view and failed to say why a no vote is bad. They say there is no plan B. Did we ask for a Plan B? The worst that can happen is that we continue as we are, trading with each other and easy travel. And the problem with that is what exactly? Given that the yes campaign have failed to sell a product they see as amazing one is left with the nagging question of "do they actually have any product to sell at all"?
Roger, UK

"The far right and the far left support a 'No' vote and some members of Mr Chirac's party who have fallen out with him." Haven't you heard of Fabius. Typical BBC bias. You just can't tell anything straight can you. You spin everything.
John Marsh, Rickmansworth GB

I teach English to business people here in Paris and not once in any of the discussions I've had with my students has a positive reaction to the constitution been made. In general, it seems that the majority of French people are worried about the social issues, the fear that the Eastern European countries will either steal all industry due to their low taxes on external investment, or flood the labour market with cheap workers, thus causing untold damage to the French economy and unemployment levels. Whether this would actually happen or not is irrelevant as the fear has been too well promoted by the 'No' camp. President Chirac has his work cut out if he is to succeed, and I'm not sure that he has really taken the opposition seriously enough.
Paula Gilligan, Paris, France

A NO vote will not destroy the EU, but will stall any attempts at making it more streamlined and efficient and more democratic. Hopefully the French will wake up in the last moment and realise that France will lose any support in the new enlarged Europe and permanently be on old Europe on life support. Instead they should become a constructive and positive player helping to export the French model of social security to Eastern Europe and future members like Turkey that wants and deserves European standards and values.
John, Copenhagen, Denmark

It seems the French are going to vote for the correct outcome for the wrong reason - pas de change!
Ian Brown, Derby, UK

After having read a lot of material on the topic - including the constitution itself - it seems to me that the constitution is not really the issue at hand. For us, voting no to the constitution is not voting no to Europe. It is telling Chirac and his government that France is not well, and that they are not doing anything about it. Especially amongst the youth, there is a feeling of total disconnection with the government in power, mainly due to the fact that most of the political players today have been around for at least 30 years. This means that they in no way represent the new France, the one with a long series of problems that in my mind must be addressed before moving on and expanding. That being said, I will vote YES on the 29th, and I hope that our European partners, and especially the English, will follow suit, because in the future, Europe needs the UK as much as the UK needs Europe.
Armand, Poitiers, France

I agree with aforementioned comments on Mr Simpson's article, being a UK citizen in Paris I am most surprised of how the French might be unwilling to give the EU its much needed identity. An identity that will not only help aspiring new members have a clear mandate to apply to their countries but also a clear template for the current members to follow. Maybe France really is a polychronic country where change is not welcomed.
Joe White, Paris, France

Instead of being a Union that organises solidarity between its citizens, the EU is developing into something that favours big business and makes countries compete with each other in a race where the winner, is the one with the cheapest and most tractable workforce. While the trend is not entirely new, this is the first time in years that citizens have been given a chance to say what they think of it.
Martin, France

The EU is not a "hugely successful trading-bloc" as John Simpson says. It is corrupt, bureaucratic, inefficient and undemocratic. The sooner it dies the better for all.
David Hammond, Wisbech United Kingdom

JS is right. I visit France often and have lots of friends there, and I go further, I think the French should have fallen out of love with EU much sooner. By consistently opposing reforms they have painted themselves into a very awkward corner: the EU has kept their agricultural sector in funds but industry has concentrated across the Rhine in Germany.

Consistently high unemployment and borrowing higher than the żeuro convergence criteria are the result. In smaller versions of the EU they dominated European agriculture and were able to stave off competition from outside the Union. Now they are starting to be undercut by cheaper producers from within the EU. Voting "Non" is their only hope - but a very slim one.
Jonathan Walker, Stuttgart, Germany

I am relaxed about the outcome of the referenda in Holland and France. It seems to me that Europe is increasingly coming to resemble an empire, and this would only be reinforced by yes votes. The point about empires though is that they never last forever, and unless they are based on either goodwill or military might, then they will probably not last long.

Ironically, a yes vote might be the beginning of the end for Europe, whereas a no vote might ensure its survival.
Quentin Hawkins, Croydon, UK

If you vote yes then what was the point in the second world war? You have your liberty - keep it !
Simon, Ashford

I will be among those that will keep finger crossed hoping NO will prevail. EU is moving fast nowhere without an identity or a purpose under the spell that questioning the wisdom of the eurocrats will bring unmitigated disaster. Let's hope there is still some sense of rationality among French voters now.
Antonio, UK

I admire John Simpson greatly but I am unsure of my response to this particular piece. I would prefer if France and the Netherlands voted yes - I think we need to be united.
Kathleen Green, London, UK

I am sick of articles telling us that if we don't agree with the European Union, its because we don't know enough about it. So thanks John Simpson for outlining that this is not always the case. For years we have been told that the European Union has maintained peace in Europe. The truth is very different: most of the intra-national disputes were ended at the end of the war - i.e. the Germans no longer claimed Alsace and Lorraine etc - or suppressed by the cold war.

Now far from being Europe's peacekeeper, the European Union is the main issue dividing Europe rather than uniting it. Many people read history wrong. It is always the processes of integration that always cause the greatest conflict!
Phil S, Olomouc, Czech Republic (ex UK)

I am sure in the long run that global pressures such as the environment, the attitude of existing and upcoming superpowers and trade or economical pressures will force Europe along the road of becoming a single entity. But I can't see it happening for a few years yet.
Andy, Brighton, UK

At last the French are developing the same concerns over loss of sovereignty that have been worrying us Brits for several years now. Ironically, a "No" vote from several countries may improve the EU - if it is clear that Europe's citizens do not want to be part of a federal super-state, then the EU may have to retreat to what it was at its best - a trading agreement between a number of independent countries.
Richard Gosling, Newburgh, Aberdeenshire

It's a bit misleading to refer to the "No" Campaign only as the far left and far right: about half of the Socialist Party is opposed to the EU Constitution - it is a position of the mainstream, not just of the extremists.
Max, London, UK

Once upon a time, the EU seemed an antidote to the periodic wars that have afflicted Europe from Roman times. Now the EU seems like a huge power bloc, of an Orwellian kind. At one end of the scale, regional autonomy and decision making will diminish to vanishing point as the bureaucrats take over. On the other end of the scale, Europe will be another reason why the developing world is shut out of world trade. What began with some high ideals, and a German hope for a Europe united this time without conquest, is devolving into a dehumanising super state. Perhaps the French will show the way forward with a 'No' vote.
Ken, Bristol

Perhaps a "no" vote is better for all. It doesn't have to mean the start of isolationism or small-mindedness. Perhaps instead of striving forward to some spurious goal Europe should take time to consolidate what it has. The beauty of Europe lies in its cultural diversity, and while I believe much immigration adds to that diversity and beauty I think globalised economic expansion detracts from it. Sometimes (if you ignore the weather!) it's hard to tell if you are in Staines or Sorento due to the rampant take over of pure monetarism.

Let's not forget that Europe is its population, history, and quirkiness. Without that it will be a boring place for the wealthy to show off their consumer goods. Let's keep Europe individual: yes to Europe, yes to close co-operation, friendship, and trust, yes to cultural ties and free movement, no to the endless search for a capitalist idyll, no to the European constitution.
Thomas Chant, Exeter, UK

I really hope the French vote "non". I've got nothing against Europe, but I think it's important for a country to maintain its identity, sovereignty and currency and, most important of all, to be able to make decisions about what affects England and not transfer the decision-making to a huge, faceless, non caring machine in Brussels.
Valerie J Millin, Bournemouth, England

Let Europe grow together at a natural human pace, not at the dictate of a corrupt unaccountable bunch of elected and unelected elitists who are slowly but surely being found out.
Paul Lewis, Walthamstow

You may call me an idealist, but I am a wholehearted supporter of the European Constitution. I am well aware of the fact that it is a compromise document, and it is quite possible that, with many more years of wrangling it could have been improved, but it is still a useful and beneficial document, which will enable the EU to move forward. I am furious at the arrogance of the French, the driving force behind the ideals of the union and the constitution, in wishing now to reject it. They will get their fingers burnt in the same way as they did at the last presidential election if they use this as an excuse to vote against an unpopular government. Honi y soit qui mal y pense even if it is pour encourager les autres!
Duncan Burrell, London, UK

Here in Dieppe, north of John Simpson's flat in Paris, I have the same experience as him. When you talk to people in the street, "Yes" voters to the European constitution seem thin on the ground. But the millions, and very likely the majority, of French electors who will say "No" to the project on offer are not for the most part extremists and xenophobes. They are genuinely opposed to an over wordy document which they see as a serious threat
Peter Avis, Dieppe, France

Universals don't automatically apply in a world made up of particulars and, the main universal which doesn't apply in the real world of the EU is equality. Legislated political and social equality in the EU is becoming evidently destructive. The realistic and just solution is freedom which allows all to rise or fall to a level determined by their particular abilities. Will the common men and women of Europe vote to reinstate political reality over political theory? Yes, if not now, later.
W. M. Turner, Selma, Alabama, USA

Citizens of both France and the Netherlands are understandably reluctant to sign away powers to a supranational body which is only really answerable to governments but which itself is not subject to sufficient democratic control. What woke the normally pro-European Dutch up was the fate of the euro currency stability pact. The perception is that the governments of France and Germany bullied the others into allowing them to fund their domestic policies by increasing their budget deficits beyond the permitted 3% maximum.

The additional inflation thereby caused will affect the entire euro zone. The Dutch have reduced public spending and raised taxes. They expect the same from the other euro countries. As matters stand, they feel, quite naturally, that France and Germany cannot any longer be trusted. It is noteworthy in this connection that the European constitutional treaty contains a protocol on the stability of the euro which, seen in this light, is already a dead letter.
Peter, Netherlands

The politicians of all the EU countries are so out of touch with general public. Most nationalities are proud of their countries. Why not stay with a level trading area for all who join. Forget EU subs for this that and the other, let each nation like manufacturers compete, let the farmers grow food that is needed then you won't have food mountains. Let us all keep our borders and nation hood. God Save The Queen.
Brian M Keith, Ellesmere England

It seems to me that Britain would be much better off if France and Holland voted "no" on the referendum - leaving Europe as a trading block only. I can only see how that would be beneficial to Anglo Saxon aspirations. There seem to be no real downsides?
Phil Norris, Bishops Stortford

Perhaps the French (like the English, Germans. Italians et al) simply have national pride. They don't want to be viewed as a 'region'; they don't want to lose their parliament. Those people in the apartment block where John stayed are probably worried that their voices will be lost when the EU swells to over 360,000,000 people. I wonder if they realised that, by placing their copies of the constitution in the bin, they were showing dissent and dissent of the EU is, I kid you not, against the law.
Glen, Welling, UK


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