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The Yes men and the No vote

A French referendum diary

by Axel Queval


A party divided

June 18, 2004

The European Council adopts a modified version of the European Constitution. The original version had been agreed on by an ad hoc pan-European convention of senior politicians and had been well received, at least by the media. The revised version, adopted after some nasty negotiations among heads of state typical of EU summits nowadays, is generating less enthusiasm than the original version, but little controversy.

June 28, 2004

Laurent Fabius, the number two in the Socialist Party hierarchy, has invited his supporters in the party to a get-together in a restaurant in the Bois de Boulogne to explain his position on the Constitution. I’m invited. I have supported Fabius ever since 1988 when President Mitterrand made it known that he preferred Laurent as his successor. But recently, Laurent has been voicing strange ideas, saying the proposed Constitution has serious flaws, and the Socialist Party would have difficulties in supporting it. I decide to go, though mainly out of curiosity. I’m what we call a federalist, and have been strongly in favour of the European Union ever since I can remember. Indeed, it was the main factor in my getting involved in politics and joining the Socialist Party in the first place, as a reaction against the crazy nationalist policies of President de Gaulle.

Laurent knows that many people in the audience will need convincing. Most of the people present are technocrats and bureaucrats from the ministries, hardly the most likely people to support an anti-establishment stance. There are few party stalwarts from the provinces. He is extremely cool and collected, as always, but also quite funny. He explains that the Constitution, if approved, will be nearly impossible to reform, and make it harder to get the necessary approval for the famous “coopérations renforcées,” under which some countries can move forward on their own. (France has always been rather sceptical about expansion to eastern Europe, and it looks back longingly to an idealized vision of a union composed of the original six: France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Italy.)

Laurent then addresses the looming problem of the “délocalisations” of factories from France and western Europe generally to eastern Europe, North Africa, China or wherever. While most experts ignore the anxiety this is generating among workers, he insists that it is a real problem with real consequences in much of the industrial heartland, and that it is not going to go away. It is related to lack of fiscal harmonization so that eastern European countries attract investment thanks to extremely low levels of taxation.

Fabius stresses the fact that the forthcoming referendum is a trap for the Socialist Party. Our party is divided on the issue, and our voters unenthusiastic at best, as the referendum on Maastricht in the early 1990s made abundantly clear. “One thing is certain,” he concluded. “We must talk about the issue as little as we possibly can.” Of course, we shall have to make a decision as a party, but we must do so as late as possible, for as of that date we shall be prisoners in Chirac’s hands, since he sets the calendar. In the meantime, the party must talk about things that our voters, and indeed French people generally, want to hear: pensions, deficits, unemployment, health care and housing.

I come out of the meeting shaken in my convictions. Three or four days later, my decision is made: I’m against this Constitution.

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About the Author

Axel Queval


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