Saturday, May 14, 2005

France/EU: 2

Whatever the outcome of the EU Constitutional Referendum in France, the messy campaign is merely the latest indictment of Jacques Chirac's much-less-than-deft political touch. The last few years have seen several attempts by him to manoeuvre the protégé-du-jour into a stronger position, and to weaken the young Turk (or rather, young Hungarian) Nicolas Sarkozy. But each move has backfired, with the Chirac faction weakened, Sarkozy stronger, and French politics further distracted. Which is one factor in the malaise underlying the strength of the No vote.

We'll spare you the much longer post we had originally prepared and just note the following contributing factors to the current dysfunctional state of French politics:
(1) There was only a truncated Left-Right debate in the 2002 elections; instead of arguing the pros and cons of economic reform, voters ended up with a choice of Chirac or National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen for President, and then whether to give Chirac a left or right Assembly majority to work with; tiring of divided government, they chose the latter.

(2) Even with this gift of power, Chirac couldn't resist trying to play favourites -- keeping his own options open for a 2007 run for President, but making sure there would be a designated heir in case he decided to retire. This meant prominent jobs for the protégé and difficult ones for the whiz-kid Sarkozy (who had crossed Chirac in 1995). The net result of all this is that France has had 4 Ministers for Finance since 2002; we noted the demise of #3 a little while back -- he was the dude who tried to stick the state with the tab for his 14,000 euro a month apartment.

So what does all this have to with the referendum? Ideally, electorates would just assess the single issue at hand. But bad government draws protest votes. Job creation is sluggish but the political elite, used to a lifetime at the public trough, doesn't understand why this makes young people pessimistic. As we indicated above, there were serious issues that should have been hashed out in the 2002 election -- such as whether it's possible to work ever fewer hours and still maintain the same level of public services. And this is where the Right's case for voting Yes gets a little disengenuous. Because it amounts to: Closer EU integration will force the type of reforms that the political system here can't deliver (as in this Sarkozy quote). A very similar case was made for joining the Euro, and that doesn't seem to have gotten internal reform very far.

So why wouldn't the Left describe the constitution as a Trojan horse for the dreaded neo-liberal/Anglo-Saxon policies? And why wouldn't the more nationalist right worry about sovereignty being ceded to Brussels? It's odd to hear Chirac describe the Constitution as the "daughter of 1789" (an appellation sure to strengthen the appeal of the Constitution in Britain) and not see the irony of a project favoured more by the elite than the people.

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