The referendum in France

María López-Contreras. Professor. Instituto de Empresa

28 June 2005

What many predicted - and the author refused to believe it till the last minute – finally happened. The No vote won the French referendum on the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe.

A lot has been written on the consequences of this “no”: the difficulty of a Constitution coming into force without France; repeat of the referendum; the unavoidable return to Nice; repercussions on other countries pending ratification; its effect on the euro and the weak European economy. But very little, if anything, has been said about the causes. Yet the causes should be the object of consideration, for only then can we understand what happened.

France is very pro-Europe. The French not only believe in the European Union, they created it. Let’s not forget that. The paradox lies in the fact that the French “no” is mainly a “no” from the left, which has proclaimed itself pro-Europe and believes the treaty is too liberal and doesn’t do enough to integrate social affairs. The French “no” doesn’t say they don’t want or believe in the European Union; it says they want more integration. Make no mistake: the French have not said “non” to Europe.

Examining the vote, it’s clear they answered everything except the question they were asked: though the issue had nothing to do with their government or their president, they used it to punish both.

European matters such as liberalization of services (the Bolkenstein directive), globalization, social dumping, Turkey's entrance into the Union, public services, or limits to public subsidies have nothing to do with the draft of the treaty. These matters were all subject of great debate in France. And they will continue to be talked about, even if the Constitution is not adopted, because the draft treaty does not affect them in the slightest.

Confused citizenry

In fact, the draft treaty is little more than a compilation of legislation contained in its forerunners, and aims to simplify legal instruments and decision-making procedures. There are no significant transfers of new competencies to European authorities, as there was in Maastricht in 1992, for example. The new ideas are focused on greater integration, something with which the French are in concord. The draft encompasses the Charter of Fundamental Rights. Legislative powers of the European Parliament continue to be increased, and areas where unanimity is maintained are reduced.

So why did the French return a “no” on a reform less substantial than Maastricht? They voted “yes” then, albeit by a narrow margin.

There are two reasons. First, it was a mistake to call a document that simply legislates and reforms previous treaties a Constitution. By Constitution, citizens understand something completely different, and this led to confusion. Second, failure should not be blamed on the draft treaty or on Europe itself in any way, but rather on Europe’s political parties and governments. Valery Giscard d’Estaing, former French president and the main architect of the Constitution, said that current President Jacques Chirac encouraged people to criticize, not support Europe. It is true that followers of the pro-Europe “no” – romantic, unrealistic and irresponsible – have not helped matters. But it is also true that politicians failed to explain to citizens what the treaty is and is not. They were incapable of refuting the countless fallacies that were poured into the “no”-vote campaigns. They were unable to simplify a complex legal text that consolidates all that has gone before. They couldn’t communicate to pro-Europe supporters – which include the French – that only by supporting this treaty will the Union, and France, be able to demand greater integration. That includes integration on a social level.

This draft treaty is good, despite its deficiencies. It is now up to European and national politicians to do their homework and succeed in getting it adopted by all Europeans, including the French.

The author analyzed causes of the abstention and “no” vote in Spain for Expansión (18/02/2005).

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