Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Link to original


Chirac Shock

By Kenneth R. Timmerman


[Timmerman is the author of The French Betrayal of America, just released in paperback from Crown Forum. A forthcoming book, Countdown to Crisis: The Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran, will be released on June 14]

<![if !supportEmptyParas]> <![endif]>

The French people overwhelmingly rejected the proposed European Union constitution in a referendum on Sunday, handing a stunning political defeat to president Jacques Chirac and to the French political elites.

In a tactic reminiscent of alleged fraud in St. Louis, Missouri during the 2000 election, Chirac and his advisors held open the polls in Paris for two hours beyond the 8 PM closing time, hoping for a last-minute pool of support that would put them over the top.

Before those last minute votes were counted, the French Interior Ministry tally showed the Non vote winning a staggering 57%. The final count, released later, brought the nationwide rejection down to 54.87%, a respectable landslide.

Mr. Chirac took responsibility for the defeat on Monday – and prepared to fire his Prime Minister. But the specter of an earlier referendum defeat in 1969 that drove General De Gaulle from power now haunts Mr. Chirac, with mounting calls that he resign.

The pressure on Mr. Chirac is his own making, since he invested heavily in the Yes campaign. Mr. Chirac told journalists on May 4, “Do you realize what other heads of State are going to say to me in summit meetings if France votes No? They’re going to say, “Keep quiet, Sir!”

That was music to the ears of French voters. Every time Mr. Chirac appeared on television in support of the Referendum, his personal popularity and support for the Referendum plunged in the polls. “Ten years after coming to [power], Jacques Chirac is on the mat,” writes Antoine Guiral in the center-left daily Liberation.

Supporters of the European Constitution, such as Chirac rival Nicolas Sarkozy, had been predicting doom and gloom for well over a week as the polls showed their campaign was headed for defeat. They were beaten by a rag-tag coalition that stretched from Trotsyists and the former Communist party on the left, to the far-right National Front of Jean-Marie LePen.

LePen’s slogan, “I’m keeping France,” summed up the sentiment of voters from left to right. But what exactly they felt they were keeping is more complex.

Some feared the Constitution would pave the way for Turkey’s entrance into the European Union, bringing 70 million Muslims into predominantly Christian (or formerly Christian) Europe.

Others complained of the “Polish plumber” who was going to steal the jobs of French workers, since the Constitution would allow cross-border competition without normalizing the social welfare system and its burdensome costs.

In a last ditch effort to slay that dragon, Chirac’s prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, told the National Assembly last month that France would oppose the free market initiative once the Constitution was adopted.

Raffarin’s pledge was precisely the type of legerdemain that aroused the suspicion of French voters, who found the 448 articles of the proposed Constitution to be opaque and incomprehensible.

The document increasingly was seen as a Frankenstein’s monster created by the political elites to perpetuate their own power. Without a shred of irony, former president Valery Giscard d’Estaing boasted that “the text is easily read and quite well-phrased, which I can say all the more easily since I wrote it myself.”

Americans could have found sweet solace in a Referendum victory, since the creation of a single, federated European Union government inevitably would have forced France to abandon its permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council in favor of the EU.

More troubling was the scarcely-veiled odor of anti-Americanism and protectionism that permeated the No camp.

Politicians and activists from the far-left to the far- right denounced Europe as a mask hiding an American-style free market where France would be unable to compete. By hitching their political wagons to a staggering Chirac, French conservatives abandoned the battle of ideas to LePen.

But the European project never passed the smell test from the start. Put simply, Europe is not one country or one culture, but twenty-five fiercely proud and independent nations. While they have much in common, few Europeans are willing to abandon their flag and tribe for an ill-defined idea, or for a supra-national government of unelected bureaucrats in Brussels.