European constitution: The French left says “non”

Submitted by Anon on 4 March, 2005 - 2:36

Vicki Morris surveys the campaigns of the French far-left against the proposed EU constitution.

The French left and far-left are far ahead of us in discussing the proposed European constitution. They expect a referendum this year — which the advocates of “Oui” (yes), including president Jacques Chirac, the Socialist Party (although with a strong minority opposed) and the Greens, expect to win.

The vast majority of the far-left is campaigning for a “Non” (no).

“No to the constitution, another Europe is possible”

The biggest no campaign is a joint campaign by the French Communist Party (PCF) and the Trotskyist Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR).

They are organising public meetings throughout the country — 100 in 60 departments at the last count — and have set up an “Appel des 200” — the UK equivalent is a “committee of 200”. The appeal has an impressive website, which at first glance looks like an official EU site.

For months the LCR in its weekly paper Rouge has been focusing on different aspects of the constitution. Its “Etudes de texte” [textual studies] include considerations of why the constitution will be bad for the environment, why the constitution discriminates against women, why the constitution is bad for peace, etc. The Etudes are reproduced on the appeal website.

The LCR/PCF et al campaign is adamant that it is not anti-Europe as such. They are against “this Europe”, this Europe of the bosses, the euro, the central European Bank, etc. They present the constitution as a particularly malign aspect of this Europe, enshrining for all time in an unalterable document the capitalist market as the core purpose of the EU, and subjecting the rights of EU citizens to its needs.

They say if the proposed constitution is defeated, it might enable negotiation of a new constitution that could take account of the needs of working-class Europeans. But that is just a small hope. The main thing is to signal the possibility of “another Europe” — a Europe of solidarity, respect for the environment, equal rights for all citizens, a Europe extending the hand of friendship to the rest of the world. It is all rather abstract how the other Europe will come about.

Historically the LCR has generally been careful not to describe the pre-EU situation of competing European capitalist states as better than a united “bosses’ Europe”. But now they appear to be opposing every concrete step in the building of the EU, in the name of something better in the future.

The position of the AWL is that that is impossible, and a no campaign — on the Maastricht Treaty, on joining the euro, on the constitution — cannot but chime in with reactionary no campaigns organised by nationalists, Little Englanders/Francers, etc, and bosses who expect to do better outside of Europe.

Vote “No”… because you can

The other large Trotskyist group in France, Lutte Ouvrière (LO) has traditionally strongly held and argued the abstentionist point of view. And now in their propaganda they explain that the proposed constitution is only proposing collectively what European governments singly propose: the needs of the capitalist market come before the needs of ordinary people.

Yet LO has decided to vote against the constitution. It took that position at its congress in December 2004. A report of the congress explains that LO understands that even bosses’ Europe has progressive aspects: it has brought all Europeans closer, not just the bosses. But, for various reasons, rather cursorily explored, it will vote no:

“The constitution only exists to regulate the relationships between the different states to the detriment of the smallest and its content is worrying on various points. For example, it cites the right to marry but not the right to divorce, the right to life but not the right to abortion… It gives a large space to religions, it speaks of the cultural, religious and humanist cultures of Europe but it does not speak of the place of the materialism and the atheism that have liberated many thinkers from religious dogmas and permitted a large part of the scientific discoveries of recent centuries and of today. It insists on the necessity of ‘defence’, that is, on arms budgets.”

A longer piece in LO’s magazine Lutte de Classe in January 2005 expands on their rather contradictory position.

It begins explaining in the accustomed weary LO manner that the constitution is nothing new:

“What is positive in the construction of Europe, the relative unification of the economic space of the European Union, the disappearance of the most important protectionist barriers and the lessening of others, the free movement of goods, capital and people — as opposed to protectionist divisions — as well as a certain homogenisation of laws and finances, the creation of a common currency — even if it is not in operation everywhere — has been achieved over the course of time, and the European constitution adds nothing new in this field. It merits neither that excess of honour that the partisans of yes attach to it, nor that excess of indignation with which the partisans of no oppose it.”

The bulk of the article explores the situation for the newly acceding smaller, poorer countries, mainly of the east. Proposed constitutional measures such as qualified majority voting LO sees as a reflection of the imperialism of the larger, truly imperialist countries of the EU — Britain, France, Germany. Now that these big three have got the EU they want, they will not allow the smaller countries to rock the boat. The role of the smaller countries is simply to be a market and a source of cheap labour for the big capitalist centres, not political equals.

Clearly LO are against the constitution. But not in the name of something better that already exists. And not, not obviously so, in favour of something better in the future — they hardly raise anywhere the traditional slogan of the workers’ united states of Europe. Which really makes their decision to vote no rather mysterious.

At the end of the Lutte de Classe piece they explain their vote briefly:

“It is against the bosses that the workers must defend themselves, starting with their own bosses and the government that protects them, and against that they must target their anger and their actions. Not against an abstract institution and not against the pieces of paper of a Constitution.

“It is capitalism that we must fight, and not the fact that, kicking and screaming, and a century late, the national bourgeoisies have finally united, if only partially, a part of Europe.

“But they are asking us to vote en bloc for a Constitution that, if it isn’t worse than the other treaties that have preceded it, is not better either. On the multitude of treaties and decisions that have shaped the European Union, they haven’t asked our opinion. This time, they are. So, we are going to say no because we cannot approve a text that, for the sake of a few drops of honey, aims to make the electorate swallow a ton of tar!”

No to the constitution, no to Chirac

A small group that the AWL has contact with, Liaisons, publishes an important newsletter Lettre de Liaisons giving news and opinion from the French socialist and trade union movement. Liaisons are for a “double no”, stressing that their “Non” to the European constitution is linked inextricably with a “Non” to the French government. (Their manifesto for the “double non” is actually a “triple non”: “NO to the ‘European constitution’! NO to Chirac! NO to capitalism!”)

For them, it appears, the outcome of the constitution vote spells make or break for the working class. They paint an apocalyptic vision if “Yes” wins the day.

“[If Chirac wins] he would consolidate the policy of his government and of the MEDEF [bosses’ organisation, akin to the CBI], in pursuing decentralisation and privatisations, in redoubling his attacks on pensions, social security, working time. Thus, the door would be opened to render irreversible the generalised aggression against the working class.

“On the other hand, the victory of the No, possible if there is a strong mobilisation by workers and ordinary people, would deal a direct blow to Chirac, to the government and to the regime, it would boost the fight to get them out and to terminate all their measures, it would open a new perspective for a common struggle by the peoples of Europe.

“The stakes are enormous. The outcome depends on the balance of social forces. All workers are concerned. Let’s unite to say firmly NO to the policy of the Chirac-Raffarin-MEDEF government and firmly NO to the same policy contained in the ‘European constitution’.”

Liaisons rejoice in the decision of the biggest trade union confederation CGT, against the wishes of its general secretary Bernard Thibault, to oppose the constitution, and counts a majority among rank and file trade unionists against the constitution.

All “no” campaigners say that the union leaders are being bought off from opposing the constitution with a handful of chicken feed labour rights granted in the “charter of fundamental rights”. They’re right, it is chicken feed that is on offer.

And Bernard Thibault is a despicable character, who stifled the massive strike movement against pension “reform” in 2002. The CGT executive, however, had a point though when, regretting the decision in the CGT, they said:

“As we have experienced during the successful mobilisations of 5 February, engagement in the struggles on wages, the 35 hours and jobs does not correspond to voting intentions in the referendum.”

Dangerous distraction?

Unions are holding days of action against the proposed ending of the 35-hour working week and replacement with “voluntary” longer hours. Pupils and teachers are in revolt against the Fillon bill which proposes more flexibility from teachers, and replaces a common, high standard of secondary education for all pupils with a high standard of secondary education for the ablest, and cheap labour “apprenticeships” for the less able.

Especially given that some of those who are engaged in these struggles are for or neutral about the constitution, aren’t all the meetings that the far-left is organising around the no campaign a distraction and potentially divisive?

Those in France closest to the AWL position on this question, LO’s formal minority, who publish workplace bulletins under the title L’Etincelle and the magazine Convergences Révolutionnaires, tackle the vote in the CGT in LO’s paper on 11 February. They make the point that there are opponents of class struggle in the no camp of the left, and some other very good points.

“If the rebuff inflicted on Thibault is something enjoyable, is it something we can truly celebrate? Since these trade union representatives [those who took the vote that commits the CGT to “no”], partisans of No, are all… bureaucrats of long standing…have never led a class struggle… They are all, as much as Bernard Thibault, partisans of negotiation, they have followed and approved the evolution of the CGT towards a so-called ‘positive’ trade unionism…

“…Neither Bernard Thibault nor his opponents [on the referendum question] propose to give class struggle perspectives that would allow the workers to carry the day. They rip each other apart over only this superficial Yes/No.

“This referendum is a trap set by Chirac. It allows the trade union bureaucrats, and political leaders like Marie-Georges Buffet [current leader of the PCF, former minister in the government of Lionel Jospin], Laurent Fabius or Jean-Luc Mélenchon [Socialist Party opponents of the constitution] to give themselves a cut-price radical allure. To say nothing of this far left which has been carrying on this same campaign for months! There’s no doubt, it is sale season but, to be clear, the workers must not sell their general common interests (jobs and wages) off cheaply nor the perspectives of fighting together.”


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