Peter Pan politics

A crisis? Sure. But which one and whose? As the results sank in on Sunday, the clever men in suits on France’s TV5 reeled off plenty to choose from: a European crisis; a domestic crisis; a crisis of legitimacy; a crisis of institutions. But the real crisis is in Paris.

The detail of France’s 55%-45% verdict on the European Union constitution is illuminating.
There was an almost complete convergence against the treaty between the voters of the extreme left and right; according to the Ipsos exit poll, 98% of communist voters voted no, along with 94% of the non-communist extreme left—but also 93% of National Front voters.

The moderate parties were more divided. There was solid support for the treaty among President Jacques Chirac’s UMP, where 80% voted yes, and in the centre-right UDF, with its 76% yes vote. But it was among Greens and, especially, Socialist voters that the divide was deepest. In both parties the hierarchy called for a yes but a majority of their electorate voted no, replicating the national picture almost precisely.

The French crisis, in other words, is not only a national crisis, but also a Socialist one. Socialist voters divided 44% yes against 56% no. This was what made the difference in the overall result. And, by taking their stand alongside the protectionists of the extreme right and left, the majority of France’s Socialists declared their identity to be with the past not the future, with the nation state rather than the globalised world.

True, they did this for all kinds of reasons: some to oppose globalisation; many because they dislike Chirac. Some voted no because they dislike the constitution or to stop Turkish accession to the EU. Whatever their motives, this was a vote to keep tight hold of nurse for fear of finding something worse. It was the politics of Peter Pan, of not wanting to grow up. True, in many respects what the French have got is good — short working hours, generous welfare benefits and a health service to envy. But it comes at the price of high unemployment, faltering economic growth and a two-tier labour market of haves and have-nots.

Chirac is the principal victim of last Sunday’s embittered result. But he is also, in some respects, its principal author. No important political leader in Western Europe has made less effort to adjust to change. Chirac has a remarkable record of taking the backward-looking, and ultimately the wrong, option.

Faced with defeat, Chirac seemed to have nothing to say except platitudes about the difficulty of defending France’s national interests. It was the speech of a politician who is out of touch. The contrast with his UMP party leader, Nicolas Sarkozy, was total. The no vote, Sarkozy said, was a message to France to break with its opposition to change, with its fears and its habits, and to move the country on. The French social model, he said, was unrealistic. Chirac may be the official leader, but it was Sarkozy who offered leadership to France on Sunday.

There is nothing worth celebrating in Sunday’s result. But there is a very real prospect that Chirac will again draw all the wrong lessons. He could declare the no vote to be a vote against globalisation and reform that requires a ‘core” group of EU nations to pull up the drawbridge to protect the French social and political model — a kind of ex post facto vote against enlargement. Polish plumbers, British politicians and Turkish and other Muslims will not be wanted on this voyage. But there is a danger that some weak leaders in other founding nations of the EU could be induced to go along with it.

If this is the route down which the president tries to take France and Europe, so be it. Two things, though, need to be said. First, it will trigger a necessary Europe-wide argument about how to come to terms with the spread of global market economics while providing support for those most at risk. And, second, Chirac’s attempt will fail sooner or later anyway. —

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