French voters have rejected the European constitution. The results were not unexpected, but they were a shock nonetheless. France has long been a pillar and an engine of European integration. It is unclear how the European Union will deal with this setback. For French President Jacques Chirac, the outcome is a slap in the face. Mr. Chirac has said he will ignore calls to step down, but he is deeply wounded.
The need for a European constitution was driven by both internal and external forces. The changing world required Europe to speak with one voice and act as one. That was becoming increasingly difficult as the EU nearly doubled in size. It took nearly two years to produce a new EU Constitution. The drafting process, overseen by former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, yielded an unwieldy document of 448 clauses, protocols and annexes that failed to capture the spirit and the dream of union. The constitution must be ratified by all 25 member states to take effect. Nine, representing nearly half the union’s 450 million citizens, have already done so.
At the beginning of the year, France looked set to do the same. Opinion polls showed 65 percent of French voters would vote yes. But when they went to vote this week, nearly 55 percent rejected the constitution and plunged the EU into a period of uncertainty. The strength of the French rejection — turnout was nearly 70 percent — reflected growing unease about the EU, France’s own economy, and, perhaps most important, France’s place in Europe and the world.
With unemployment remaining stubbornly high — 10.2 percent is a five-year high — most voters saw increasing integration as another manifestation of globalization, and the constitution as an imprimatur of Anglo-Saxon, promarket policies plus the subordination of social concerns to economic forces. They feared yet more job losses and the destruction of a way of life. Xenophobes played up fears of the country being overrun by Eastern Europeans and Turks when that country joined the EU.
Anger at Mr. Chirac, who had pushed hard for approval of the constitution, was compounded by scandals that have rocked the government, strikes aimed at his economic reforms, and a conflict between the president and the European Commission over a draft services directive that would liberalize markets still further. Opponents of the constitution, on the right and the left, used the incidents to portray a government out of touch with ordinary voters. Mr. Chirac’s imperious manner did not help.
Equally significant is growing unease in France about the direction of the European project itself. France was one of the six founding states of what was to become the EU, and for most of the union’s existence, the Paris-Bonn axis charted its course. But with the union having expanded to 25 states, France is no longer able to bend the group to its will. The French self-image has been dented by Brussels’ growing power and its rising readiness to challenge Paris.
The result was a loud “non” Sunday. Still, European leaders insist that the treaty remains as alive as Europe. Existing arrangements continue; monetary union is unaffected. EU officials will meet in mid-June to assess next steps, While there is no backup plan, there is talk of a second vote for states that reject the constitution.
The immediate concern is whether the French vote will “contaminate” other ballots. Dutch voters vote Wednesday in their own referendum, and opinion polls there put the “no” vote at 60 percent. Rejection by the Netherlands, another EU founding state, could deal the treaty a fatal blow. Then, the question would be how the union itself should deal with this setback.
If only the French say no, then the vote could be seen as an anomaly and another ballot ordered. A second rejection would raise more fundamental issues about the consensus underlying the European project. It would certainly make it more difficult — if not impossible — for British Prime Minister Tony Blair to call a referendum on membership. Turkish membership could also be put on hold.
Mr. Chirac has been badly hurt. He looks like a lame duck two years before the next presidential election in France. Mr. Chirac says he will not resign. The Cabinet will be reshuffled, but the problems run deeper than that. France faces a crisis of confidence. The country’s leaders must acknowledge the painful adjustments necessitated by a changing world. France cannot wish those forces away. Europe cannot but be affected. France (and Germany, whose government has also been shaken in recent polls) will be going through a period of internal assessment. Only when it finds a new consensus will France be ready to resume its role in Europe and the world.
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