French disenchanted with the EU

World View: 'The French saw a perspective that answered their historic decision to play an important role, if not a dominant…

World View: 'The French saw a perspective that answered their historic decision to play an important role, if not a dominant role, in the European Union. Now they no longer recognise themselves in the project. It no longer exalts them."

So says Robert Badinter, the veteran French lawyer, socialist minister and now senator, following the publication of two opinion polls showing a majority of French citizens would vote against the European constitution on May 29th.

If what he says is true it is a serious matter for the EU. Each of its major member states and most of its smaller ones have combined national and European political identities in various ways throughout the lifetime of the EEC/EU.

Those entangled identities were no guarantee of political agreement; but they have created a commonality in which it has been possible for most political elites and citizens to recognise and work with each other in deepening political integration.


A rupture to that identification in France would endanger the overall project. Making this point Jacques Delors has described a possible French No to the constitution as a "political cataclysm". He was a central figure, along with François Mitterrand and other Socialist Party leaders, in constructing a new equilibrium between French national identity and Europe, following the failure of their left-Keynesian experiment under the impact of capital flight, in the early 1980s.

This rapid education in the realities of capitalist interdependence was accompanied by an adjustment towards neoliberal economics, with the proviso that they should be regulated at European level.

Politically this reorientation was copperfastened by reimagining Europe in terms of the French values of universalism, enlightenment and republicanism. This vision exalted France by appropriating Europe and projecting it in French colours around the world - not least against the United States, which became an "other" in this imaginary.

In due course the centre-right adjusted to the new French consensus, led by Jacques Chirac through the 1990s. This represented as great a shift away from traditional Gaullism as that of the Socialists from their sovereigntist, intergovernmental vision.

De Gaulle memorably described the EEC in 1965 as "un aréopage technocratique, apatride et irresponsable". In the early 1990s Chirac argued that if France was to accept the Maastricht Treaty on the euro (which it did by a tiny margin in an uncanny anticipation of this referendum) it would also be necessary to ensure the EU catered adequately for French exceptionalism.

He has spent the years since then arguing that case, not least in 2002, when he was elected in a landslide with left-wing support after the Europhobe Jean-Marie Le Pen outvoted his Socialist opponent Lionel Jospin in the first round of the presidential election.

Chirac has come under increasing pressure to get directly involved in the campaigning on the referendum he called, which now appears to have imploded on him (although in the nature of such things it is much too early to predict the outcome).

He used the opportunity to do so at the European summit in Brussels this week. "Europe is what we decide to make of it," he told a press conference at which he expressed satisfaction that the stability and growth pact governing the euro has been substantially modified in response to French and other lobbying on the need for greater flexibility in state expenditure.

At the summit Chirac told his fellow leaders that "ultra-liberalism is the communism of our times". In the face of persistent reports that the services directive agreed by the outgoing European Commission and now the responsibility of Charlie McCreevy could turn French voters against the constitution, Chirac welcomed the demonstrations against it by European trade unionists in Brussels last weekend and reaffirmed his support for the EU's social model.

As Bertie Ahern told his press conference, "We have another socialist amongst us: he is sympathetic". The directive will now be substantially modified, in what is widely seen as a setback for José Manuel Barroso's centre-right commission.

Chirac will use this outcome to support his contention that "if France blocked the European construction, the consequences would not be negligible. She would lose a large part of her authority".

Given that the precipitate fall in French support has to do with his own government's domestic unpopularity as it amends the 35-hour working week, fails to deal effectively with unemployment and suffers another round of corruption scandals, Chirac can hope voters will recognise how he has affected the EU agenda.

His fellow leaders were quite ready to lend him support in order to save the referendum from a French defeat. In that sense there is still a recognition factor at play in EU politics, even if smaller member states chafe at French large state exceptionalism.

But Badinter went further. To exalt is to raise aloft, elevate or assume a superior position. He says the French are no longer exalted by the EU project. If that is so, the shift registered in the 1980s could be coming to an end.

There has been much commentary on how out of sympathy France is with the newly enlarged EU. It has brought more small states into membership, many of them attracted to an unregulated anti-statist neoliberalism exalting a US rather than an EU social model - not to mention the attractions of the Bush administration's foreign policy.

France also has a profound difficulty with prospective Turkish membership, whether civilisationally and geographically, or in terms of the precedent set for potential Algerian or Moroccan membership, which triggers fears about Muslim immigration. There are continuing concerns that Turkey is sponsored by the US to weaken the EU's world role.

In response to these worries there is much Chirac could argue. The constitution does in fact reflect large state concerns. It will boost the EU's international capacity by strengthening its foreign and defence structures. And it respects and recognises the cultural diversity that has become a principal theme in France's foreign policy to protect its exceptionalism.