The anticipated earthquake in France has happened. The country whose political elite has symbolized the European project and did much to ensure its success, voted to reject the proposed constitution for the Union, a project supervised by the former French President Valerie Giscard D’Estain. Irrespective of the explanations as to why this has taken place, or the predictions of its local and regional impact, the results of the referendum on the Constitution represent a categorical turning point for France and the wider European community.
Looking beyond the challenges the No votes presents to the French government and a visibly shaken President, Jacques Chirac, and to the European integration project, the French rejection reveals deeper social trends that call for analysis. The vote is the latest manifestation of three structural crises; the first relates to the internal French politics, the other to the nature of the European project, and the third crisis concerns the wider ideals of European democracy.
The first indication of a crisis gripping French politics appeared during the last presidential election in April 2002 WHEN President Chirac won with votes from across the political spectrum against the Far Right candidate Jean Marie Le Pen in the second round of voting. In the first stage, Chirac and Le Pen received more votes than the Socialist Prime Minister at the time, Lionel Jospin. Despite three years passing since these elections, it appears that the French political class has not learned from that situation that exposed the growing cleavage between deep-rooted political formations and the wider political spectrum, or between the legal country and the real country, to use the phrase from French sociologist Pierre Norah.
In the run up to the referendum on the constitution, the French Right chose to form a wider front under the leadership of the bright popular politician, Nicholas Sarkosy, but it was unable to unite its ranks. Conflict erupted between the various wings, especially between the arm led by the President and the group led by Sarkosy, the Party leader who does not hide his presidential ambitions and is not afraid to criticize the President and oppose the now ex Prime Minister Raffarin’s decisions. Therefore, it is safe to conclude that the French vote represent, in part, a vote of no confidence in the government and evidence of Chirac’s dwindling popularity. The President, after all, was unable to convince his citizens of the importance of supporting the constitution, despite appearing four televisions appearances in one week.
In this respect, the results of the referendum also reveal the decline of the French Socialist Party who has been unable to achieve unity and liveliness since it was defeated in 2002. Leaders of the Left were divided on the European Constitution in two camps: those who supported it, led by Francois Hollande and those who opposed it, with the former Prime Minister Roland Fabius at their helm. Most of these members voted against the Cnstitution, setting a dangerous precedent in the history of the French Left, known for its strong European orientation. As a result, the two big families in French politics, the Gaullists and the Socialists lost in the referendum. Their defeat reflects the growing political and institutional crisis gripping the French fifth republic, in place since the 1950s and which many hope to see amended.
It is not only French political life that is imploding under pressure from all sides. The European project has also entered a dark tunnel in the wake of the French rejection of the constitution. It is a well known fact that the Union is the result of a French-German rapprochement which grew into a full strategic partnership under De Gaulle and Adenauer and was further nurture during the reign of President Francois Mitterand in France and Counselor Helmut Kohl of Germany. Since its inception, the project for a united Europe has had two related objectives. The first had to do with getting rid of remnants of Nazism, Communism, and Fascism. The second was to develop a political and strategic identity for a much longed for union of Europe. It is safe to say that the first objective has largely been a success, unlike the second.
Failure to create a sustainable identity political identity for the European Union has many root causes. One such cause is the multitude of alliances within the Union; with a French-German alliance, a Scandinavian coalition, a British-Spanish-Italian grouping, formed during the latest Iraq war. Another reason has to do with the problem of the unbalanced relation between national identity or the framework of sovereignty and citizenship on one hand, and the integration imperative, which is of technocratic nature. A third cause has to do with competing relations with other international bodies such as NATO. Despite efforts to establish a European political and military system based on the concept of joint sovereignty, the Union is still closer to what the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk calls “economic papacy”, or a large village resort that is visited by Europeans to cleanse themselves from their past.
The final crisis touches on the nature of the political system in modern day democracies, based on the duality between sovereignty and representation which, at present, faces a series of problems. Some of these challenges are the result of globalization and the retreat of the nation-states, whiles others are caused by the disappearance of social agenda from politics.
In a recent article, the prominent French intellectual Jean Baudrillard, discussed how the rejection of the European Constitution is not directed against the document itself, but rather, against the existing political consensus and the politicians taking for granted voter’s loyalty. This rejection is, in Baudrillard’s words, an indication, among others, of the ineffectiveness of the principle of representation since elected institutions are not following a democratic course that goes from citizen to those in power. Rather, they are operating under a system of integration which goes from power to citizen through the trap of a referendum which includes a predetermined answer.
Baudrillard sees in this the decline of the concept of the “citizen master” or the “democratic actor”, to be replaced by the captive citizen. This new breed of citizen is under the economic, financial, and communicative control of the government. The irony is that the process of captivity, the very tool of terrorism, has morphed into instrument to practice democracy.