Tuesday, October 12, 2004

French reactions to an expanded EU that has decided not to build itself on the basis of a French social model or of France's world ambitions

Never fail to turn to the Tuesday issue of the International Herald Tribune, to check up on John Vinocur's Politicus column. This week's installment is called: French suppress rage over EU constitution. Oh, and while you read it, think of what it says about unilateralism and being the big bully who, supposedly, will not allow his allies to disagree or who will not even listen to them.
There is something seemingly preposterous in the fact that France, one of Europe's quintessential nations, is involved in a do-or-die debate about whether to ratify the European Union's new constitution. When a country so lashed to the EU's future can think of turning its back on what it helped create, reality crushes common sense. But so it is.

The issue is signing on to a European basic law that doesn't reflect France's systemic mirror of itself that much of the country, from left to right, wanted installed as the EU's constitutional template.

The heart of the matter lies in a kind of suppressed rage about coming to terms with an expanded EU that has drawn away from France, and decided, rather incontrovertibly, not to build itself on the basis of a French social model (in practice: 10 percent unemployment, high taxes, an obese state apparatus) or France's world ambitions. A scheduled December canvass within the Socialist Party on whether to say yes or a no to a constitution that obviously rejects the French model sets up a pressing problem. A shivs-out battle among politicians slashing for position to succeed Jacques Chirac in 2007 makes things edgier. And a referendum on ratifying the constitution promised by Chirac for 2005 guarantees the discomfort packed into this excruciatingly public moment — French insecurities and admissions of failure paraded on the European stage — won't go away soon.

"Objectively," wrote Eric Le Boucher in Le Monde, trying to explain where this all began, "France lost the European battle to export its social model." He argues that the French political establishment has become an anachronism for Europe in arguing for a dead-on-its-feet social program — which by my extrapolation means not only a statist ethos but protectionism, controls on competition, and obligatory high-cost welfare schemes.

…But the trouble for France is not only that the draft constitution — the EU's 25-members must ratify it individually — is seen here as officializing a European economic and social system along the lines of Tony Blair's flutes-and-strings reorchestration of Margaret Thatcher's rough-edged policies.

The EU's 25 members also have turned from France's notions of "Europe puissance," code for a kind of activism that many in Europe have come to regard as meaning confrontation with the United States. The Bush administration's venture in Iraq may be the despair of the EU, but a France that, Brezhnev-style, told the Soviet Union's former satellites to shut up about the war before it began, and now wants to obliterate their competitive tax advantages, has won no converts.

There are additional not-always-articulated France-Europe frictions. France has never liked the EU's enlargement (too many of America's pals among the newcomers with too little allegiance to the EU's old powerbrokers). And, in spite of their professed special grasp of the Islamic world, the prospect of Turkey's entry in the EU creates shudders among the French. (Polls show between 55 and 60 percent are opposed.)

Taken together, this has meant enormous stress on the French political fabric, and it has begun to tear. …

Over all, the matchup on the issue involved two opposing insincerities:

  • A) People calling for a yes who would privately acknowledge that the constitution was symbolically burying a certain French vision of Europe.
  • B) People endorsing a no who think the EU's lack of rigor about its own laws and decrees might mean that a future constitution could be effectively disarmed the same way that France and Germany yanked the teeth (and economic constraints) out of the Security and Growth pact this year.
Bernard Kouchner, a physician and former Socialist cabinet minister, whose individuality has never been stifled by party doctrine, sees a "French syndrome" behind all this.

His definition of the abnormality: "Talking louder than everybody else, making a little bit more noise, and thinking that by yourself you constitute a majority."

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