France's airwaves have been crackling with indignation this week, as politicians wring their hands at the record abstention in the first round of voting in the regional elections. Sixty six per cent of French voters found something else to do last Sunday other than vote, prompting Gabriel Attal, a government spokesman, to proclaim that the 'abysmal' turnout 'imperilled democracy'. 'French democracy is sick,' said Emmanuel Rivière of polling institute Kantar Public.
It was perhaps unfortunate timing for Monsieur Attal that his remarks were made on Wednesday June 23, five years to the day since the British people voted to leave the European Union. The milestone didn't pass unnoticed in France, particularly among the millions of men and women who, in 2005, had their own vote on the country's relationship with the E.U in a referendum to ratify the Constitution drafted the previous year.
Voters were asked a simple question: Do you approve the bill authorising the ratification of the treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe?
Much of the media and the political class were confident that the response would be a resounding 'Oui'; but it wasn't. The 'Non' vote triumphed with 55 per cent of voters rejecting the constitution in a turnout of nearly 70 per cent. See, Monsieur Attal, there was a time when the French enjoyed voting.
And how did the French Establishment react to their defeat? They ignored it. The then-president Jacques Chirac, an ardent Europhile, initially told the nation in an address that 'It is your decision, it is your sovereign decision and I take note of it.'
But he didn't. He procrastinated long enough to pass the problem onto his successor, Nicolas Sarkozy, also a fully-fledged member of the Brussels fan club. When he became president in 2007, Sarkozy and the other EU nations effectively rebranded the Constitution as the Treaty of Lisbon and it was adopted by the French parliament. Job done, assumed plenty of politicians. It was a revealing indication of their arrogance in believing there would be no repercussions to ignoring the people they represent.
The party that suffered the most were the Socialists. The Left had been the most enthusiastic supporters of the No Campaign, and hell hath no fury like a Socialist scorned. The disintegration of the French Left in the last decade, and in particular its rupture with its working class core, can be traced back to the 2005 vote.
'The referendum marked a break,' reflected Marie-Georges Buffet, the leader of the French Communist party from 2001 to 2010. 'People voted, and there has been a refusal to accept the decision of the people. Disillusionment settled in.'
If there was any courage among France's political class, if they respected the people, they would follow Britain and put France's membership of the E.U to the vote once more. But they won't, because they know what the result would be, it would be for Frexit. Emmanuel Macron admitted as much in an interview with the BBC in 2018.
I experience this Euroscepticism wherever I go in France: from Bayonne to Brittany, from the Pyrenees to the Pas-de-Calais, the French I speak to are sick of the E.U. Earlier this month, I spent two days cycling around the Somme, visiting the battlefields and cemeteries of the First World War. The region has been hit hard by the economic fallout from Covid with their two main employers – tourism and the aviation industry – on their knees.
A shopkeeper in the town of Albert was delighted to encounter a Briton, a rarity in a region when normally at this time of year there are thousands of battlefield tourists from across the Channel. We talked about Covid and its impact, and her lips curled when we got on to the vaccine. 'What a mess the E.U made of that,' she said. 'You British had the right idea to get out.'
It's not only the vaccine roll-out that the E.U messed up; they've messed up democracies, not just in France, but in the Netherlands who also rejected the Constitution in 2005 and in Ireland, who said no to the Lisbon Treaty in 2008 before being ordered to vote again and produce a 'Yes' vote. As the Guardian asked in response to the treatment of the Irish people: 'What part of Ireland's 'no' does the EU not understand?'
It's the arrogance of the E.U, Monsieur Attal, that imperils democracy in France not the apathy of the voters who have never forgotten 2005.