Tuesday, May 31, 2005

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Chirac Shock

By Kenneth R. Timmerman


[Timmerman is the author of TheFrench Betrayal of America, just released in paperback from CrownForum. A forthcoming book, Countdown to Crisis: The ComingNuclear Showdown with Iran, willbe released on June 14]

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The French people overwhelminglyrejected the proposed European Union constitution in a referendum onSunday, handing a stunning political defeat to president JacquesChirac and to the French political elites.

In a tactic reminiscent of allegedfraud in St. Louis, Missouri during the 2000 election, Chirac and hisadvisors held open the polls in Paris for two hours beyond the 8 PMclosing time, hoping for a last-minute pool of support that would putthem over the top.

Before those last minute votes werecounted, the French Interior Ministry tally showed the Non votewinning a staggering 57%. The final count, released later, broughtthe nationwide rejection down to 54.87%, a respectable landslide.

Mr. Chiractook responsibility for the defeat on Monday – andprepared to fire his Prime Minister. But the specter of an earlierreferendum defeat in 1969 that drove General De Gaulle from power nowhaunts Mr. Chirac, with mounting calls that he resign.

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

That was music to the ears of Frenchvoters. Every time Mr. Chirac appeared on television in support ofthe Referendum, his personal popularity and support for theReferendum plunged in the polls. “Ten years aftercoming to [power], Jacques Chirac is on themat,” writes Antoine Guiral in the center-leftdaily Liberation.

Supporters of the EuropeanConstitution, such as Chirac rival Nicolas Sarkozy, had beenpredicting doom and gloom for well over a week as the polls showedtheir campaign was headed for defeat. They were beaten by a rag-tagcoalition that stretched from Trotsyists and the former Communistparty on the left, to the far-right National Front of Jean-MarieLePen.

LePen’s slogan,“I’m keepingFrance,” summed up the sentiment of voters fromleft to right. But what exactly they felt they were keeping is morecomplex.

Some feared the Constitution wouldpave the way for Turkey’s entrance into theEuropean Union, bringing 70 million Muslims into predominantlyChristian (or formerly Christian) Europe.

Others complained of the“Polish plumber” who was goingto steal the jobs of French workers, since the Constitution wouldallow cross-border competition without normalizing the social welfaresystem and its burdensome costs.

In a last ditch effort to slay thatdragon, Chirac’s prime minister, Jean-PierreRaffarin, told the National Assembly last month that France wouldoppose the free market initiative once the Constitution was adopted.

Raffarin’s pledgewas precisely the type of legerdemain that aroused the suspicion ofFrench voters, who found the 448 articles of the proposedConstitution to be opaque and incomprehensible.

The document increasingly was seen asa Frankenstein’s monster created by the politicalelites to perpetuate their own power. Without a shred of irony,former president Valery Giscard d’Estaing boastedthat “the text is easily read and quitewell-phrased, which I can say all the more easily since I wrote itmyself.”

Americans could have found sweetsolace in a Referendum victory, since the creation of a single,federated European Union government inevitably would have forcedFrance to abandon its permanent seat on the United Nations SecurityCouncil in favor of the EU.

More troubling was the scarcely-veiledodor of anti-Americanism and protectionism that permeated the Nocamp.

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

But the European project never passedthe smell test from the start. Put simply, Europe is not one countryor one culture, but twenty-five fiercely proud and independentnations. While they have much in common, few Europeans are willing toabandon their flag and tribe for an ill-defined idea, or for asupra-national government of unelected bureaucrats in Brussels.