I am reminded that today is the 10th anniversary of the French referendum on the European Constitutional Treaty, which resulted in the treaty’s decisive defeat—thereby scuttling it (and with Dutch voters delivering the coup de grâce four days later in the referendum there)—and formally inaugurating the era in which the French electorate became Eurosceptic in its majority. N.B. Euroscepticism here does not signify a rejection of the construction of Europe tout court; just not “this” Europe. Whatever that’s supposed to mean. Personally speaking, I was a 100% partisan of a oui vote in the 2005 referendum. The Constitutional Treaty was a good, solid, well-conceived text, put together via a democratic, transparent process, and was quite simply the best treaty the European Union could have possibly come up with in view of the absolute necessity to adapt the institutional architecture to an EU going from 15 to 25 members—with the enlargement of 2004, and an additional two in 2007—and to institutionally tackle the EU’s famous “democratic deficit.” IMO, there were no good arguments against the treaty. None whatever. Those who opposed the treaty either didn’t know what they were talking about—which was the case for leftists who voted non—or were fighting the last war—and one already lost—which was the case for right-wing non voters.
During the referendum campaign in the spring of 2005—to which I was riveted—I attended public events of all four camps:
- Oui de gauche: A town hall meeting at the Sèvres mairie, with Jack Lang (very good) and Daniel Cohn-Bendit (totally excellent), which was intermittently disrupted by two loud-mouthed noniste de gauche hecklers, who, after the longest time, were escorted out.
- Oui de droite: A packed town hall meeting at a large auditorium in my right-wing banlieue, with the then local UMP deputy (and member of the Raffarin II government) Henri Plagnol (excellent) pedagogically explaining the treaty to the audience of mostly UMP voters.
- Non de droite: A packed rally of several thousand at the Palais des Sports (Porte de Versailles), with souverainistes Philippe de Villiers and Nicolas Dupont-Aignan the têtes d’affiche, and with speakers from several, mostly northern European Eurosceptic parties, including UKIP’s Nigel Farage (speaking in fluent, albeit heavily accented, French).
- Non de gauche: A rally in a meeting hall in Créteil of a couple of hundred people, presided by the commune’s longtime fabusien mayor, Laurent Cathala, and with a panoply of speakers from hard leftist (PCF), extreme leftist (LCR etc), and gauchiste civil society associations.
The arguments of the oui de gauche and oui de droite were similar, which each camp emphasizing different things to address concerns of its voters, e.g. the oui de gauche assuring that the Constitutional Treaty would absolutely not undermine the welfare state, the oui de droite that the treaty in no way paved the way for the entry of Turkey in the EU.
Noteworthy were the arguments of the non camp. In the case of the right-wing souverainistes, they argued for a Gaullist vision of a Europe of Nations, of a return to the Europe of the Treaty of Rome. And on this, they presented their case well (on the level of oratory, de Villiers and Dupont-Aignan, plus the youthful Guillaume Peltier, were excellent, BTW). Their world-view was coherent, with one either buying it or not, but voting oui or non wouldn’t have changed a thing, as, with the Single Act and the Maastricht Treaty, the horse had already bolted from the stable, as it were. There was (and is) simply no turning the clock back to the 1960s (and returning to the franc). The hard right-wing, as is its wont, was engaging in the politics of nostalgia.
A note: The oui de droite rally revealed, for me at least, an undercurrent of Germanophobia on the French right (and which is present on the left as well, as Jean-Luc Mélenchon has reminded us with his latest pamphlet). All the flags of EU member states were hung from the rafters except for the German. And in the literature tables there were anti-Germany books (by small right-wing publishers) that I had never heard of. And this Germanophobia has become more pronounced in the ensuing decade.
What most struck me was the rally of the non de gauche. It was a horror show. A tissue of lies from beginning to end. In attendance at the Créteil rally was the petit peuple de gauche in all its splendor: working-class public employees, CGT and FO activists, Communist and Trotskyist militants, and other sundry hard leftists, and with each speaker seemingly trying to outdo the other in demagoguery and mendacity. E.g. the insistence that the Constitutional Treaty would threaten abortion rights (bullshit) or laïcité (bullshit times ten), or undermine the sacrosanct French social model (unfounded nonsense). Etc, etc. The hysteria and lies went on and on. But none of the gauchistes’ objections were valid in the least. Not a single one.
At the end of the day, the failure of the referendum was the fault of Jacques Chirac, who organized it in the first place. He wasn’t obliged to. He could have simply had parliament ratify it with a three-fifths votes and that would have been that. But with the referendum called, Chirac then failed to defend the treaty, unlike François Mitterrand during the Maastricht referendum campaign 13 years prior. And UMP president Nicolas Sarkozy, obsessed with 2007, didn’t lift a finger to do so.
One positive effect of the referendum was that it got the French electorate engaged with Europe in a way it had never been before, save the 1992 campaign. Malheureusement les Français ont mal votés…