By Vicki Morris
The French electorate certainly gave president Jacques Chirac a bloody nose on 29 May when they rejected by 55% to 45% the proposed European constitution.
The no campaign in France was led by left-wingers, and most of the French (and British) left have welcomed the “no” victory. Sober judgement suggests they are wrong. The first result of the “no” victory may well be that Britain gets its opt-out from the EU’s 48 hour maximum working week extended...
When Chirac announced that ratification of the European constitution treaty in France, would, unlike in most EU states, be by a popular vote, he imagined that he would gain prestige from a popular endorsement.
He miscalculated. To see Chirac’s face miserable in defeat is sweet for socialists. Leftists in France, from the Trotskyists in Lutte Ouvrière and the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire, via the French Communist Party, to the dissident minority of the Socialist Party, and many thousands of trade unionists and social campaigners, are claiming Sunday’s vote as a victory for their “left-wing no” campaign of the last few months, an anti-neo-liberal, pro-Europe, internationalist “no”. A “no”, they said, that had nothing to do with anti-Europeanism, French nationalism, xenophobia or fear of admitting Turkey into the EU.
Are they right? And is the AWL, which, had we been in France, would have abstained in this referendum, wrong? How do we assess the “no” vote?
First, everyone needs to be sober about its size. The “no” won by 10 percentage points on a 70% turnout. It did not wipe the floor with Chirac. About 38.5% of the French people voted no to the constitution; 31.5% voted yes; 30% abstained.
Second, we cannot be sure who voted “no”. When the French said yes to the Maastricht Treaty in 1994 the vote was 51% to 49% on a 70% turnout. A few people changed sides this time, some stayed at home who in 1994 came out, and vice versa.
Some opinion polls suggest that a significant proportion of no voters were persuaded by the “left-wing” arguments against the constitution. It is reported that the “no” vote was strongest among working-class voters, the “yes” among the well-off. But much more analysis of the vote needs to be done before socialists can be sure it is really they who have carried the day.
It would be absurd to deny that many will have voted “no” for chauvinistic, Europhobic, racist, reasons. Shall we count among those who helped to secure this “left victory”, for example, the 18% of the electorate that supported the fascist Le Pen in the Presidential election in 2002?
Third, the left has to remind itself that there are ruling class champions of neo-liberalism, not least here in the UK, cracking open the champagne bottles over the French vote. Many in the ruling class oppose full European integration — and the more coherent of them are those, like the Tories in Britain or Vaclav Klaus in the Czech Republic, who want to limit integration because it would tend to erode the “competitive advantage” of EU states like Britain and the Czech Republic which have weaker labour rights and social provision than the core states of France and Germany.
Those Tory types were not out leafleting for the “no” vote. But the “no” victory will in fact be more their property than the no-voting leftists’.
While we oppose the capitalist terms for European integration, more walled-off competing capitalist nation-states are not our alternative, nor even a lesser evil.
The message given by the result of the French referendum is confused. The left cannot be sure that it has won at all. And if it has won, precisely what has it won?
A spanner has been thrown in the works of the EU. There are implications for how the EU will function in future, the pace of enlargement, whether Turkey can begin talks on accession, etc. The pro-integration ruling classes of Europe will find ways around the difficulties this causes them, although they might take a while doing it. It is not at all clear that the eventual outcome will be more to our advantage than a “yes”. If EU integration and expansion is slowed, that is no gain for us. If it proceeds on modified terms, those terms may be slightly worse as easily as slightly better.
In France, Jean-Pierre Raffarin will be replaced as prime minister, but to be replaced by… another right-wing politician, Dominique de Villepin.
All those tasks that lay ahead of the left in France before the referendum, embattled with an unpopular, right-wing, neoliberal government, remain to be done. Is the left better equipped as a result of the referendum campaign to wage its struggle?
It is true that the left-wing no campaign has built new networks and staged impressive public meetings throughout France. It has made valuable propaganda about the need for an alternative vision of Europe to that posed in the constitution (though no more than what European socialists should make all the time).
The LCR and socialists in the unions are saying they will hold those networks together, and build on them. It’s not clear, however, that those networks could not have been built anyway in response to the economic, social and political battles that are going on in France. Surely it would have been better to build networks and coordination explicitly on the basis of those struggles, and in full unity. There are many who voted “yes” or abstained over the constitution who agree with the substance of the left-wing “no” appeal: we need a workers’ not a bosses’ France in a workers’ not a bosses’ Europe. Bridges to those people have now be built.
A few voices on the left in France had warned that the “left-wing no” campaign was a diversion from the real tasks facing socialists. We think they were right. Chirac’s anguish doesn’t persuade us otherwise.
Our tasks remain what they were before the referendum: throughout Europe, to fight the bosses and their governments! To build workers’ unity across Europe!