Since the Financial Times (UK) is known as "the Wall Street Journal of Europe," it is not surprising that this review of Olivier Duhamel's Des raisons du non (Paris: Seuil, June 2005) ('On the Reasons for the No') misses a key factor in the May 29 rejection of the European Constitution: a repudiation of the neoliberal instauration of corporate hegemony over French society that several clauses of the proposed constitutional treaty represented. -- The domination of French society by economic interests has never been part of the French democratic credo, and the effort to foist such a regime on France produced a remarkable mobilization of civil society against the constitution, one that prevailed in the face of nearly universal advocacy by French élites (those Thornhill describes as "the country's political, business, and media leadership") and demonstrated how out of touch they are with most French citizens. -- Thornhill's remarks on Rod Kedward's La Vie en Bleu: France and the French since 1900 (London: Allen Lane, July 2005) are more sensible, and he notes how Kedward shows how quickly France can change. From this it follows that it is far too early to consign France to mediocrity, as those like Duhamel whose views were frustrated by the May 29 vote have been inclined to do. -- In describing Jacques Marseille's La guerre des deux France: Celle qui avance et celle qui freine (Paris: Librairie Académique Perrin, February 2005) ('The War of the Two Frances: The France That Goes Forward and the France That Hits the Brakes'), though, Thornhill reverts to neoliberal cheerleading, implicitly endorsing Marseille's view that "every French person must now choose whether to go on the offensive and join the 'France that works' or hunker down behind a new Maginot line in the 'France that moans.'" ...


By John Thornhill

Financial Times (UK)
September 10, 2005

The repercussions of France's rejection of Europe's constitutional treaty are still reverberating around the country, and the rest of the continent. This rib-crunching political jolt, stalling France's 50-year drive towards greater European integration, has come as a severe setback to the country's political, business, and media leadership, who supported the treaty. The electoral insurrection also came as a shock to most of France's European partners, who had long viewed France as the European Union's "indispensable nation." In the view of Dominique Moisi, one of France's leading political commentators, future historians are likely to look back on May 29 as the day on which Europe abandoned its ambitions to be a global power, marking a decisive shift in gravity towards Asia, which will dominate the 21st century.

But why did more than 15 million French voters reject a constitutional treaty, the hard-won fruit of painful consensus, that they had themselves been clamoring for, that enshrined so many of their social and political values and reflected their desires to give Europe a stronger political and foreign policy dimension? Was it out of principle, pique, or simple bloody-mindedness?

In a narrow sense, the question is simply answered: 55 per cent of those who went to the polls thought the treaty was poorly conceived, contained incomprehensible jargon, trespassed too far on national sovereignty, or did too little to protect the French social model from the chill winds of globalization, the predations of low-cost Polish plumbers, or the threat of Turkish entry into the European club. Analyses of the polling data showed that most French voters were not rejecting Europe itself, just a flawed conception of it.

But in a broader sense, as Olivier Duhamel writes in his essay entitled Des raisons du non, the result also highlighted something rotten in the state of France. Duhamel, a respected constitutional scholar who participated in the European Convention that drew up the treaty and campaigned vigorosly for its adoption, has no doubt that the French electorate made a terrible mistake. "The No had its reasons that reason ignores. It is wrong," he states bluntly in the opening sentences.

"The French wanted a more socially-oriented Europe. The constitution finally permitted it. They voted against . . . The French wanted a more democratic Europe. The constitution proposed it. They voted against and as a result refused, often without knowing it, the right of civil initiative, increased powers for parliaments, institutionalized social dialogue, the Charter of Fundamental Rights. They refused all that they wanted . . . The citizens did not only vote against Europe. They voted against themselves."

Duhamel, who penned his essay in a fit of white-hot anger in the immediate aftermath of the referendum, argues that French voters had reached such a state of frustration that they were ready to say "No" to any question presented to them on a voting slip -- except, perhaps, one proposing a universal pay rise. Europe simply became the unfortunate and innocent victim of France's profound and interlocking crises. "Political degradation, social suffering, and institutional exhaustion, such are the sources of the French crisis that explain" the referendum result.

The author is generous in his blame for this electoral disaster. He condemns President Jacques Chirac for blindly ignoring voters' oft-expressed anxieties and trying to make partisan advantage out of a national political issue, knowing that the referendum would split his leftwing opponents. But Duhamel is equally damning of those dissident socialist leaders who fell into Chirac's trap by betraying their party's internationalist history -- and an internal party vote -- in opposing the treaty. His anger is particularly directed at Laurent Fabius, the socialist former prime minister and champion of the No campaign, whom Duhamel accuses of two cardinal sins: treachery, and treachery.

But Duhamel argues that France's failings are not just individual but institutional. The latter-day leaders of France's Fifth Republic have proved incapable of responding to the country's challenges, most notably structurally high unemployment. For more than two decades, successive governments of both left and right have failed to cut France's unemployment rate, which has oscillated between 8 per cent and 12 per cent. Little wonder that French voters believe their political leaders are either liars or incompetents, or both, and have increasingly switched support to more extreme protest parties. The share of votes won by the two mainstream parties in the first round of the presidential elections has dropped from 75 per cent in 1965 to just 38 per cent in 2002. It is time to scrap the "monarchical presidency" of the Fifth Republic and move on to a more responsive and democratically accountable Sixth Republic, Duhamel says.

One of the virtues of Rod Kedward's La Vie en Bleu, a history of France since 1900, is that it shows that many of the political and social tensions that Duhamel identifies have existed for decades, if not centuries, reflecting some of the country's defining characteristics and paradoxes. How can a country that proclaims universalist ideals and values accommodate enormous regional, religious, cultural, and ethnic diversity? How can a country that has always viewed itself as exceptional accept that other countries might do things better? France appears in a state of constant anxiety about such issues, no matter whether it is flourishing or flailing. "We are in a period of enormous material progress, yet also one of bankruptcy," Kedward quotes Henri Barbusse as writing in 1927. The intellectuals "are searching for something new. They feel that a huge change is in the air, but they don't know what it is."

As Charles de Gaulle once remarked, "The desire of privilege and the taste of equality, the dominant and contradictory passions of the French of all eras, provide the subject for inexhaustible discussions."

A retired academic historian, who has been marinated in French studies all his working life, Kedward charts the country's efforts to find answers to these fundamental national questions. It is a rich and fascinating tale, told with great authority and insight. Since 1900, France has evolved from a global empire, controlling 10 per cent of the world's land mass, into a middle-ranked European power. During that time, it has experimented with almost every form of political system, including brief flirtations with communism and fascism. It has experienced both hard-won, agonizing victories, notably the First World War, and traumatizing defeats, including the Nazi occupation and savage colonial wars in Vietnam and Algeria. France has also moved from a rural to an urban country, from a highly traditional to a cosmopolitan society, experiencing explosive bursts of economic expansion and cultural creativity along the way. France may seem like an immobile, blocked society today. But Kedward usefully reminds us that France can and does change very fast.

That said, Kedward's studied analysis of modern France's failings underpins much of Duhamel's impassioned ranting. During the Fifth Republic, France's political leaders have shown themselves to be cunning tacticians but poor national strategists. In 1991 President Francois Mitterrand courted electoral disaster when he held a referendum on the Maastricht treaty, paving the way to a single European currency, because he believed -- rightly -- that it would split the opposition right. This year, Chirac called the referendum on Europe's constitutional treaty because he believed -- rightly -- that it would tear apart the opposition left.

Both Mitterrand and Chirac, who between them have run France for the past quarter of a century, have tried to introduce ideologically driven programs, only to abandon them quickly in the face of opposition. In 1981, at a time when Reagan and Thatcher were moving towards the free market, Mitterrand introduced "socialism in one country," nationalizing the commanding heights of the economy. But his government was soon forced into retreat after being slapped around by the financial markets. Conversely, in 1995, Chirac, professing admiration for the American can-do spirit, attempted to launch more radical market reforms in France. But he was forced to retreat by mass protests on the streets. Trapped between the constraints of the financial markets and trade union militants, the left no longer dares to be left, and the right no longer dares to be right. Does that leave the way open for a non- ideological pragmatism? We may find out during the 2007 presidential elections.

In his book, La guerre des deux France, Jacques Marseille attacks the corrosive pessimism of Left Bank intellectuals (such as Duhamel), who hold that the Trente Glorieuses (or the 30 years of economic boom in postwar France) have been followed by Trente Piteuses (or 30 years of economic stagnation following the 1973 oil shock). Bolstering his argument with a mass of statistics, Marseille argues that the past 30 years have seen staggering advances in the welfare of French citizens. Life expectancy has risen by nine years, social inequalities have been drastically reduced, the proportion of the population living in poverty has halved and the productivity of the French workforce has soared.

"In 30 years, during a period that we lazily describe as a crisis, GDP per head has almost doubled, national wealth has trebled, the infant mortality rate has been divided by four, the length of the working week has been cut from 44 to 35 hours and the number of students completing the baccalaureat at the age of 18 has trebled," he writes. "The golden age is surely ours."

Of course, much the same could be said about many other developed countries over the past 30 years; France is not exceptional. But Marseille is a firm believer in the continuing strengths of France and implicitly rejects the idea that Europe is about to be washed away in the Asian century.

Even Marseille concedes, though, that France now needs to reform in order to thrive and cut the country's shameful unemployment rate. He identifies three main priorities. First, France needs to overhaul its costly and wasteful state, which drains the energies of its vibrant private sector. Second, governments, acting in the interests of the majority of voters, must confront the entrenched interests of the small but powerful trade unions, which vigorously defend their members' privileges to the detriment of outsiders. Third, France's antiquated education system must be refocused, with far more funding targeted at improving university research and innovation.

Marseille suggests that a war is currently raging between two Frances: a confident, outward-looking, competitive France, exposed to -- and benefiting from -- globalization; and a fearful, inward-looking, and sheltered France, fiercely protecting its own turf against outsiders, both from within France and from abroad. The author suggests that every French person must now choose whether to go on the offensive and join the "France that works" or hunker down behind a new Maginot line in the "France that moans." But, as the referendum vote perhaps shows, the majority of French voters remain in a wary and defensive mood -- in spite of Marseille's pleadings.

John Thornhill is the editor of the FT's Europe edition. DES RAISONS DU NON by Olivier Duhamel, Seuil, 6.90 euros, 62 pages

LA VIE EN BLEU: France and the French since 1900 by Rod Kedward, Allen Lane £25, 741 pages

LA GUERRE DES DEUX FRANCE: Celle qui avance et celle qui freine by Jacques Marseille, Perrin, 8 euros, 260 pages