Published: April 6 2005
Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, former president of France and father of Europe's constitutional treaty, has been around long enough to know how to pitch a political proposition to an audience. The 79-year-old president of the convention that drew up the constitution beguiled 600 of France's top military officers last month with his explanation of its significance.
The introduction of a treaty governing the expanded European Union of 25 member countries was, he told them, a "historic event" solidifying the biggest political organisation in the world after China and India. Caressing the pages of the treaty document, Mr Giscard explained how the various articles of the constitution defined the values of the EU and the rights of its citizens, contained the rules explaining how the enlarged union would work and codified preceding treaties.
But what, one bold officer asked, would happen if France - or any other core country - rejected the treaty? Calmly explaining that the constitution was a compromise forged in marathon talks among thousands of participants, Mr Giscard said it would be impossible to renegotiate such a document, especially as it had already been ratified by several countries. "We would have a crisis," he concluded.
The possibility of just such a crisis crystallising in France has significantly increased in recent weeks, according to a batch of opinion polls. These have all shown that a narrow majority of voters is inclined to reject Mr Giscard's beloved constitution in a national referendum on May 29, threatening to bring the European project juddering to a halt.
The public anger expressed in the opinion polls has thrown France's political elite into a panic and dismayed the country's European partners. How could France - described recently by José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, as one of Europe's "indispensable" countries - threaten to smother its own political creation? What has gone awry with France, for decades the intellectual inspiration and the driving force behind Europe's integration?
When President Jacques Chirac announced on July 14 last year that he was to hold a referendum to approve the constitution, pro-European sentiment was strong. An electoral triumph would reinforce Mr Chirac's political authority, giving him the perfect platform to launch a bid for a third presidential term in 2007 if he so desired. But events have since conspired against him. The opinion polls show that the French electorate has grown increasingly unhappy with his government, insecure about the country's economic future and worried about the way the EU has been developing.
From the government's viewpoint, a terrible confluence of embarrassments has reinforced those concerns. In February, Hervé Gaymard, the finance minister known as a "baby Chirac" because of his closeness to the president, was forced to resign amid a public scandal over the state financing of his €14,000-a-month apartment. The opening last month of a sensational trial, involving 47 politicians and business executives charged with operating a "corruption pact" in central France in the 1990s, has also tarnished the image of the country's political elite, which heavily favours the constitution.
To compound the government's misery, the unemployment rate shot above 10 per cent in January. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have also been demanding higher pay and protesting against the government's plans to loosen the 35-hour maximum imposed on the working week.
To cap it all, a furious row erupted between Paris and Brussels over the introduction of an EU directive, originally devised by Frits Bolkestein, the previous Dutch commissioner, to liberalise Europe's vast market for services. The No campaigners leapt on the threat from "Bolkestein-Frankenstein", depicting the directive as a means by which the "ultra-liberal" Commission would open France's markets to lower-paid workers from the new member states of eastern Europe.
Jean-Daniel Levy, head of research at CSA, a polling organisation, says French people used to see the EU as a means of spreading French values and influence outside France. But they have increasingly come to believe the reverse applies: that the EU has become a mechanism through which outside influences and values are imposed on France. "The Bolkestein directive was a threat to the French identity," Mr Levy says.
The second great difficulty bedevilling the Yes campaign is that their opponents are proving an elusive and effective enemy, refusing to be drawn into a battle on the government's chosen ground. The Yes camp has been vainly trying to focus the debate on the functionality of Europe: is the EU better governed by the current Treaty of Nice or the constitution? But the No camp has been addressing almost every other worry in voters' minds.
Although France's two biggest political parties, the ruling centre-right UMP and the opposition Socialist party, formally support the constitution, each contains vocal dissidents. The Communist party and anti-globalisation campaigners on the far left and the "sovereigntists" and hardline nationalists of the National Front on the far right also furiously oppose the treaty.
On the left, Laurent Fabius, the former prime minister and deputy leader of the Socialist party, has been the most articulate critic of the constitution. Last year, Mr Fabius tried to persuade his fellow socialists to reject the treaty, arguing that this would provoke a "salutary crisis" in Europe. In spite of losing an internal party ballot on the issue by 41 per cent to 59, Mr Fabius has continued to criticise the constitution, presenting himself as a better European than his colleagues.
Contrary to Mr Giscard, Mr Fabius argues that France could renegotiate a better treaty with the rest of Europe to reinforce workers' rights and the EU's social protections. "It is because I want a Europe of hope, a Europe of use that I want a return to the negotiating table," Mr Fabius said on Sunday.
More extreme members of the Socialist party have been playing on voters' economic fears. Henri Emmanuelli, a firebrand of the old school, has been arguing that Brussels is part of the problem rather than the solution. The Commission, under the sway of the much-feared "Anglo-Saxon" liberals, is threatening to erode workers' protections and accelerate the "delocalisation" of jobs to China, he says.
By contrast, the opposition right is chiefly animated by the possible admission of Turkey into the EU. Campaigners opposed to Turkish entry have been incensed by Mr Chirac's unilateral decision to agree to the EU's opening membership talks with Ankara (even though the president has promised French voters a blocking referendum on Turkey's possible entry in 10 to 15 years' time). The National Front, which won 18 per cent of the vote in the presidential election in 2002, is explicitly linking the two issues, saying that a No to the constitution would signal a rejection of Turkey.
Some elements of the Gaullist right are also campaigning against the constitution, arguing against both Turkey's entry and any further loss of sovereignty to Brussels. Charles Pasqua, the Gaullist senator and former interior minister who opposed the Maastricht treaty of 1992 that paved the way for the euro, last weekend pitched in for the No campaign. "Federal, ultra-liberal, Atlanticist - such is the Europe in which we have been living since Maastricht and such is the Europe that is being celebrated in this constitution," he said, accusing Mr Chirac's UMP of abandoning its Gaullist heritage.
From the perspective of the Yes camp, this opposition is a multi-headed monster that is proving impossible to slay with one telling argument. Moreover, its own campaign has been shambolic. The government has found it difficult to make the case that the EU is working in France's favour, while ministers have been locked in battles with Mr Barroso's Commission over how to dilute the services directive and the growth and stability pact, the fiscal rules underpinning the euro.
Some Socialist leaders have balked at finding themselves on the same side of the barricade as their rivals in the UMP, hampering efforts to co-ordinate the Yes campaign. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, one of the most prominent Socialist leaders, has attacked Nicolas Sarkozy, the populist president of the UMP, and other "fireman pyromaniacs" on the right for speaking out against Turkey's EU entry into the EU while campaigning for the constitution.
The Yes camp is also teeming with political sub-plots. Mr Sarkozy's voters have been whispering to the press that a No vote would kill off any chances of Mr Chirac's running for a third term, leaving the field free for their man to emerge as the natural leader of the right. Le Canard Enchainé, the investigative newspaper, has even reported that the Elysée Palace had grown so suspicious of Mr Sarkozy that it ordered his telephones to be bugged.
A No vote would also badly damage the reputation of François Hollande, the Socialist party leader, clearing the way for other presidential candidates from the left. Several political careers could be made or broken depending on the outcome of the referendum.
All that said, there are signs that the Yes camp is finally beginning to gain some coherence. The government has shown it is listening to the voters' anger and has thrown some sops to the electorate. It has increased its annual pay offer to more than 5m civil servants and has promised to continue paying fuel subsidies to farmers, one of the most stubborn anti-constitution groups. Michel Barnier, the foreign minister, has also gone on the offensive in attempting to skewer the "non-truths" of the No campaign. Denouncing the opposition's "verbal hooliganism", he argues that there is no direct link between the constitution and either the Bolkestein directive or Turkey's candidacy. He maintains that a No vote would leave France in a worse position to shape the EU's future.
Next week, Mr Chirac will make his first full intervention in the debate, explaining to a group of young voters on live television the importance of the constitution. The Yes supporters hope the president's appearance could help reframe the national discussion for the rest of the campaign. Indeed, the pollsters believe the contest remains open, with everything hinged on the strength of the two campaigns over the next eight weeks. "An intention to vote is very different from a vote itself," says Mr Levy of CSA, suggesting that the current polling trends could yet be reversed.
In his address to the Military School in Paris, Mr Giscard concluded by paraphrasing Benjamin Franklin's grudging acceptance of the US constitution: "I consent to this constitution because I expect no better and because I am not sure that it is not the best." The Yes campaigners argue that the French people may yet reach the same verdict as Franklin, once they have been properly informed about what the treaty does - and does not - contain.
But the debate points to a chasm between the French elite and the people, La France d'en haut and La France d'en bas.That distrust will surely be the dominant theme in French politics ahead of the presidential election in 2007, whatever the outcome of next month's referendum.
‘Oui’ camp looks frailer than in 1992
France’s Yes campaigners on Europe like to draw comfort from their victory in the referendum in 1992, when they persuaded voters to adopt the euro. But it would be rash to draw too much reassurance: the result in 1992 was close and both the context and the content of the two campaigns are very different.
Then, as now, the Yes camp started the campaign with a clear majority. Three months before the referendum on the Maastricht treaty, containing the rules for Europe’s single currency, the Yes camp commanded the support of 63 per cent of voters. That support rapidly dwindled - before the last-minute intervention of François Mitterrand, the then president, who went on television and outdebated Philippe Séguin, his chief critic. The Yes camp squeaked through with 51 per cent of the vote. “In 1992, without Mitterrand, the French would have said No to Maastricht,” says one Socialist politician.
Sylvie Goulard, a professor at Sciences Po, Paris’s political sciences school, argues there are three main differences between the situation in 1992 and 2005 - all to the detriment of the current Yes campaign.
First, the opposition to the euro was conducted mainly on a rarefied level, with opponents of the single currency focusing on economics. This time, the No camp is invoking populist arguments, whether or not they are connected with the constitution. “[Laurent] Fabius [the deputy leader of the Socialist party] has broken a taboo by saying that you can be against this constitution and still be for Europe. That is absolutely absurd but it is popular nonetheless,” Ms Goulard says.
Second, Mr Chirac is not Mitterrand. Like Mitterrand in 1992, Mr Chirac is planning a television appearance to sell his cause. But Mr Chirac is far less of an instinctive European than his predecessor. “You could like or dislike Mitterrand but everyone knew that he was an acknowledged European. I am not sure that Chirac has the same authority,” says Ms Goulard.
Third, the European context is very different. In 1992, the Soviet Union had just imploded and democracy was flourishing in eastern Europe. France was clearly the politically dominant force in the EU with Jacques Delors, a French former Socialist minister, in charge of the Commission. Mitterrand also had a close political relationship with Helmut Kohl, then the German chancellor, jointly setting the European agenda. Since then, France’s influence over the expanded EU has diminished and Jacques Barrot, its commissioner, is not regarded as greatly influential in Brussels.
Ms Goulard’s considered conclusion? “In this country, everything is imaginable,” she says. “The French like to disobey.”