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Last Updated: Saturday, 4 June, 2005, 07:17 GMT 08:17 UK
Time to reflect on EU treaty vote

By Allan Little
BBC News, Paris

There were plenty of warnings that it was coming, but the "No" votes by France and the Netherlands over the EU constitution seem to have thrown everyone into disarray. Allan Little joins politicians and bureaucrats in what Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, has called "a period of reflection".

'Non' banners at French referendum rally
Almost 55% of French people voted "No" to the EU constitution

Any English speaker who has ever learned French will know that the two languages are full of little elephant traps known as "faux amis", or false friends.

Words that are spelled or even pronounced the same in both tongues but which mean completely different and sometimes contradictory things.

"Blesser" in French is not to bless but to injure.

And in the current political climate, there is one that crops up time and again.

Even fluent English speakers on the "No" side of the argument over the EU constitution have told me that they do not like the document because there is far too much, as they put it, "concurrence" in it.

They do not mean "concurrence" in its English sense of co-existence or co-operation. They mean "concurrence" in its French sense which is to say the opposite.

"Concurrence" is the French word for competition.

Anglo Saxon values

British Eurosceptics looking to the "No" coalition for friends and allies in the struggle against an overweening European super-state should beware.

For about two-and-a-half months of every year, France lives on credit - credit to fund not capital investment, but a high quality of life that is no longer within its financial means
The "No" majority is full of faux amis.

Only a minority were motivated by arguments the French call sovereignist - the desire to defend the independence of individual nation states.

What swung it for the "No" vote was the defection of two large groups who have traditionally been reliably pro-European - the youth and the centre-left.

The other day I sat in the dappled sunshine on the Place de la Sorbonne, the heart of French political and philosophical disputatiousness, sipping little black coffees with a group of students out canvassing for the "No" campaign.

"What was wrong with the treaty?" I asked them.

They told me it was riddled with Anglo-Saxon economic values. It enshrined the values of the free market - the Thatcherite law of the jungle would be very hostile to French values.

This was a threat to the high quality public services the French citizen enjoys, they said.

The services, I conceded, were, it was undeniable, excellent - but they are all in deficit. France cannot pay for them.

Balancing the books

For 29 consecutive years, France has spent more than it has raised in taxation.

It makes up the difference by borrowing. For about two-and-a-half months of every year, France lives on credit - credit to fund not capital investment, but a high quality of life that is no longer within its financial means.

Man holding flags
The whole future of the European Union has been thrown into jeopardy

My student friends looked at me sadly. I was hopelessly, irredeemably British in my economic fixation with who should pay, with balancing the national books.

In France, the answer was obvious, they said.

The money is there. It can come from taxing business.

One of them waved the treaty at me.

"This is a treaty for big business and not for citizens," she said.

One of the leaders of the socialist "No" camp, Henri Emmanuelli, declared on television within minutes of the result becoming known that the referendum marked the start of a new era for our continent, the building of a socialist Europe.

The "No" coalition was also a decisive rejection of the forces of globalisation.

France wants to isolate itself, together with the older members of the Union - not only from the new members to the East, whose more flexible labour markets and lower wages suddenly seem so threatening - but also from what is happening in India, China and elsewhere in the developing world.

Airbus, that quintessentially pan-European achievement, is now the world's leading supplier of passenger airlines, having overtaken Boeing a few years ago. Fine.

But what happens when Indian engineers start churning out aircraft built to their own design?

As the globalisation guru and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman points out this week: "French voters are trying to preserve a 35-hour working week when Indian engineers seem ready to work a 35-hour working day. Good luck."

Free trade

The key centre-left swing voters - the ones that made the difference - were voting against economic liberalism, and for a European order that would protect their hard-won social benefits.

QUICK GUIDE

France and Germany have always been for a political, as well as an economic union.

But the French vote, together with that in the Netherlands now looks as though it has stopped political union clean in its tracks.

All Britain has ever wanted from Europe, essentially, is free trade - one big pool of buyers and sellers whose trade is not hampered by internal barriers.

And that is pretty much what is left of Europe after the killing-off of the treaty.

The French left is going to find that in voting "No" they will get precisely what they voted against.

As one newspaper here put it this week - our leaders told us we had to vote yes because there was no plan B. It turns out there is a plan B after all - and the B stands for Blair.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 4 June, 2005 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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