Peter Oborne

The European constitution contains some good sense. That’s why the French dislike it

The European constitution contains some good sense. That’s why the French dislike it

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The situation in France is very perplexing, especially if you are British. The French people may well vote Non in the constitutional referendum next Sunday, which would be a development with incalculable consequences for the future of Europe. But the French will vote Non for reasons that make no sense at all in Britain. The British No campaign urges opposition to the constitution because it threatens too much central control. The French are voting Non in such large numbers because they fear the exact opposite — a weakening of the command state.

The British No campaign warns of a new wave of regulation that will damage British industry and commerce. But the French Non voters are convinced that they will give away cherished rights and immunities for workers if they sign up to the constitution.

Many French believe that this constitution is part of some wicked Anglo-Saxon plot to take over Europe and attack the inalienable right of the French working man to a 35-hour week, limitless holidays and to be generally bloody-minded and bone idle.

I arrived in France in time for one of the country’s numerous bank holidays, Whit Monday. This has just been abolished by the French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and needless to say the mood in the country was mutinous. Workers were pulled out on strike in defiance of this feeble attempt to impose a tiny measure of control on Gallic working practices. In a humiliating about-turn, the government instantly gave in and the French have got their Whit Monday break back again in time for next year. Basically the Non campaign represents a prodigious explosion of fury against modernity, all inchoately focused on the constitution. For the last half century it has been quite reasonable for Frenchmen to conclude that the EU was a guarantee of job security and future prosperity. It has now dawned on the French, rather late in the day, that the situation has changed. The EU is no longer friendly but loaded with menace. The expansion of Europe to the east has brought waves of cheap workers to France; meanwhile French businesses are emigrating to the east, and taking local jobs with them.

Next on the agenda for EU enlargement is Turkey, and the prospect of a Turkish accession quite terrifies the French. France is yet more terrified by the rise of China, the most dramatic manifestation yet of the threat that globalisation poses to French prosperity and jobs. On Monday Peter Mandelson’s EU Trade Commission issued a warning to China of the ‘irreparable harm’ that Chinese textile exports are doing to European producers. This has been seen as a blatant intervention by Mandelson in the French constitutional referendum — a last-minute attempt to reassure voters that the EU still can protect their interests.

The European constitution, with its explicitly free-market ideology (Article 1–3(2) states that there shall be ‘an internal market where competition is free and undistorted’), is seen as a palpable manifestation of the menacing and formless world which threatens the soul of France. This is why the Non campaign unites such a formidable coalition — National Front and its disdain for foreign workers, Gaullists’ reservations about loss of sovereignty, and above all trade unionists terrified about conditions of work.

Last week Jacques Delors, the creator of the modern European Union, seemed to concede the possibility of defeat in the face of the onslaught from the Non camp by indicating that it would not be fatal to vote no.

‘There could be a plan B,’ said Delors. This remark was doubtless intended to provide an exit route in the event of the disaster of a no vote. But it has also had the effect of licensing the French to vote Non without fatal consequences.

Sometimes it seems almost as hard to find a ‘Yes’ voter as it was to find a Blair supporter before the British election. This does not mean that they do not exist, but they are muted, nervous and defensive.

I attended a Socialist rally in central Paris on Tuesday morning addressed by Delors and Elisabeth Guigou, the former Socialist minister for employment. Barely a dozen voters — as opposed to journalists and hangers-on — turned up. The most eloquent supporters of the constitution I have found come from France’s tiny fraternity of free marketeers, such as Sabine Herold from the think-tank Liberté-Cherie, the nearest thing France possesses to the Institute of Economic Affairs. Ms Herold argues that the European constitution has the capacity to do for France something like what Margaret Thatcher did for Britain 20 years ago. That, of course, is exactly what the Non campaign fears.

This paradox is very marked. Opponents of the constitution in France fear that it will open the way to a shapeless future, while in Britain the No campaign warns that it will take us back to a shapeless past. In certain respects the paradox is easy to resolve. The rigidity of French social and economic structures is so strong that France has turned into a backward country while Britain remains fairly competitive. This contrast is so marked that it is far from ludicrous to assert that the same constitution can pull France forward while dragging Britain back.

Nevertheless, the European constitution is a much more complicated matter than it seems at first sight from a Eurosceptic point of view. There is a faction of Euroscepticism — more strongly represented by Ukip than by mainstream Conservative party critics of the European Union — which is indeed an angry rejection of the modern world. It is animated by dislike of immigration, globalisation and the loss of ancient symbols of national identity — the same kind of scream of anguish that we are seeing from the French Non campaign this week. But there is also a more advanced and attractive Euroscepticism whose most potent criticism of the EU has been its selfish parochialism and backwardness, and the free operation of markets. These free-trading Eurosceptics have a problem when it comes to the European constitution. They can hardly fail to acknowledge that the constitution upon which France is voting this week is partly animated by the need to adapt Europe for the arrival of new countries from behind the former Iron Curtain, and in due course bring in Turkey and other states. The amusing possibility is starting to emerge that these kinds of Eurosceptics may yet find that they have much more in common with Jacques Delors and his French Socialists than the baffled Gaullists, Le Pen’s National Front and the angry trade unionists who will line up against the constitution next Sunday.

Peter Oborne will present a report on the French constitutional referendum for The World Tonight on BBC Radio Four at 10 p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday.