Thursday, April 14, 2005

French Referendum and Populism

Once again I wish to come back to the discussion on the French referendum on the Treaty Establishing a Constitution for Europe. Principally I am against referendum as a form of democratic deliberation. Since there is no chance that the people will actually go on and read thousands of pages of the European Constitution, the referendum is bound to bread political populism, where both proponents of the “yes” and “no” have only indirect and very limited political responsibility for the political agenda they advance. The only thing that will matter politically, is the overwhelming impression as to why the referendum failed and, I think and will try to elaborate on in this blog, the general message, if the French majority votes "no", will be nationalist and racist. Voting for “no”, you are, unwillingly voting for “le Front National” or simply expressing a protest vote against the government and its policies. Here, it is useful to remind, we are not voting for or against the government, but for a much more important project.

I still think Raphael Paour should consider the overwhelming political effect of the French "no" to the Constitution. It is not only, civil society left-wingers, close to his heart, that promote this agenda, but many other French politicians, with whom, Raphael, quite surely, generally disagrees. Let us briefly present their arguments.

Some centre-right politicians from UMP and UDF say no to the constitution, but also say "long live Europe". They do not want to vote for the Constitution because they do not want to see Turkey in the EU fearing that its entrance to the Union will seriously and irreparably damage the prevailing system of values in the EU. A “no” to the Constitution would give a chance to the French voters to express their opinion about Turkey’s entrance in the EU. They are, at least declaratively, not against Turkey’s membership because it is a Muslim country but because it is not geographically in Europe. In this way, they believe, “we are going towards a Europe that will have nothing political and that will simply be an area of free exchange of goods and services.” One of the two MPs, Riviere further argues “Turkey has nothing to do with Europe.” Riviere believes in the creation of the Europe-nation and Europe superpower and is convinced that this Constitution is absolutely not going in this direction. This is why he invites the French to vote “no”.

Communists are for the “no” argument because they reject, as Raphael Paour does, the neo-liberal Europe. What do they want? What is their alternative social and political project, it is hard to understand. Arlette Laguiller, from Lutte Ouvriere, a radical left-wing Trotskyite Party, is one of the strong proponents of the “no”. She criticizes the European project proposed by the current French President, government and Socialist Party, but she does not have an alternative, apart from some poorly elaborated proposals.

Some time ago, just to give an example, in a TV program Laguiller suggested a total nationalization of the French economy. When the journalist asked her, and I paraphrase, so ok you are going to nationalize these companies and the workers will continue producing what they produce and, say for example, that the people are not really interested to buy their product, what will you do, how will that company earn the money, how will the workers get their salaries? Laguiller, remained silent, but history did not, look at how the Communist experiment ended. This is not to defend neo-liberal capitalism but to expose political amateurs such as some proponents of the “no” vote in France. They might have their ideas right, in terms of social justice (at least I believe so) but they are dangerously utopian. Similar, irresponsible political agenda, threatens to hamper the EU future.

Le Penists are against the Constitution because they are against the EU per se. Le Pen screams “No to the Turkish Europe” and “no to treason, decadence and corruption”. For him this Constitution is wrong because it even more strengthens the idea of Federal Europe.

The problem with this referendum is that you can only say “no” but not also WHY NOT. With the political elections the situation, although imperfect, is somewhat better, at least after 4 years, if not satisfied with the record of the government one has the opportunity to vote no. In the case of the referendum, everyone will claim that it is exactly his position that brought the referendum down. Referendum is indeed a perfect setting for the protest vote. The strongest political entity will have the means and power to say that it is their position that won the majority of the votes for “no”. The civil society, vibrant in the pre-referendum stage, insufficiently unified, will be to weak to express their view and say that it is for their arguments that the Constitution failed.

The most fundamental feature of this Constitution that it is a result of a compromise. People criticize it from fundamentally opposing positions: because it is neo-liberal, because it is giving more power to the EU powerful institutions interfering with every aspect of the economic life in the Union (see the comment of EU-serf )because it is creating a Federal Europe and because it fails to do so, because it is white and because it is black etc.

This Constitution is leading towards the deconstruction of the nation-state. Parallel to this process it is slowly transferring the political discourse, or at least big parts of it, from the national to the EU level. True enough, EU is not as democratic as the nation-state, but it is going in that direction. This Constitution creates the possibility for the left-wing sensitive voters, like Raphael, to fight for the socialist Europe at the European level, since it is going towards the creation of a European wide public sphere.

There is another argument suggesting that Raphael and other responsible proponents of the “no” vote, should change their minds. Look at the example of Spain. Are the Spanish left wingers less left wing then the French? Are they less concerned by the social Europe than the French. No, and despite this fact, in Spain the adoption of the Constitution was a pure formality (80% for “yes”). The Spanish voted for the Constitution because of the perception that the EU membership brought huge economic to that country. The French will vote “no”, not really because they are against such Europe, but because they wish to express dissatisfaction against the French political elite, economic slowdown etc. Not only that they will not read the text of the EU Constitution but will pay very little attention to the deep aspects of the “yes” and “no” debate. It is important to remember that this vote is not the vote of confidence to the French mainstream political elite but a referendum for the EU Constitution. I think that the problem in France is that many political or social groups voting and campaigning for the “no” see this as their chance to make significant political gains. But this is indeed not an appropriate setting to indulge in these political operations.

Let us, however, leave the Constitution alone for a moment. Let us talk about the alternatives. Fine, the French vote against the Constitution and then what? The Dutch might follow, the EU Constitution goes to the dustbin of history and the current EU Treaty system continues to apply. A victory for the left-wingers? Not at all. Most of the legislation that they do not want to see adopted can anyway get adopted both at the national and at the EU level. The only thing they will achieve in this way, is that they are going to strengthen nationalist (Euro-sceptical) sentiments in Europe, and they will refuse to create the political Europe (or at least move towards its creation) that would help for their voice to be heard at the EU level, through the parliament. Voting “no” you vote for the present Treaty structure. Do you like Nice? No. Well, you are voting for it.

Indeed, one can criticize this constitution for many things but one has to propose the alternative and be always aware of the political reality. Are the proponents of the “no” able to, get their version of the Constitution adopted, some time in the future. No chance. Then think about your acts, politics demands responsibility, or at least I believe so.

Pragmatism in Politics against dangerous idealism (or dangerous protest vote) suggests you should vote “yes”.

If I were to vote for the same position with Le Pen, I would think twice.

It is important, to be able to comprehend the long term importance of the “yes” vote. It is important that voting “yes” you are not voting for Hollande, Sarcozy, Chirac but for a future that goes well beyond their lifetime. For that reason, dear (honestly not sarcastically) left-wingers, hold your nose and vote “yes” regardless of the political benefits this result would give to the present government and mainstream opposition.

For further Information about the Constitution see 1 and 2.

2 comments:

ken said...

“Voting “no” you vote for the present Treaty structure. Do you like Nice? No. Well, you are voting for it.”

This is an interesting argument, one however with which I disagree; a no vote, is hardly a vote for the present treaties, it is a vote against the Constitution. The fact that a No vote will leave the present treaties in place is something over which we have no control, we can only answer the question put to us. The present Treaties were put in place without a mandate from the people of the UK, so we find ourselves in this position not of our own choosing. The only affect we can have on the EU institutions is to refuse to give our consent to the Constitution, in the hope that the EU can either become democratically accountable to the people, that we should leave the union or failing that to bring the whole edifice down.

Any arguments about the different political streams that oppose the Constitution and that the some want more socialism and others want less is not one for a constitutional debate, the fact that this constitution does bring more socialism than some would like, and less than others want, is a problem of the Constitution text, not the people who oppose it. The left wing, right wing, debate should not be entertained as part of the debate when considering a constitution for what is to become a state, because by installing either in a constitution is going to disenfranchise some sectors of the population, and as a constitution must be acceptable to all of the people this cannot happen.

“this vote is not the vote of confidence to the French mainstream political elite but a referendum for the EU Constitution”
I am sorry but I would have to disagree with this point as well, the people of France have every right to vote against the proposals of the mainstream political elite. If they are not happy with the Constitution for the EU that these elites have negotiated, this cannot be interpreted as simple a vote on the Constitution, if the people feel their wishes and aspiration are not represented in the text and they are not happy with the government policies that membership of the Union entails, they of course must vote no what else are they to do.

Raphaël Paour said...

"I think and will try to elaborate on in this blog, the general message, if the French majority votes "no", will be nationalist and racist. Voting for “no”, you are, unwillingly voting for “le Front National” or simply expressing a protest vote against the government and its policies."

This is a performative sentence. It seems to me it is how you want to interpret it; it is just an argument, of bad faith I would say, to convince people not to vote how they believe that they should. The polls done during the last month indicate that the growing popularity of the No is due to people usually vote for left-wing parties. If you absolutly want to make things simple, then you should say that in majority the proponents of the No are not racists. Le Pen maybe voting with us but he in no way represents the majority of the opposents. Many people in favour of the Yes whish he did, he would be easyer to fight. People from the main political parties have asked the media to put him forward instead of others.

"The French will vote “no”, not really because they are against such Europe, but because they wish to express dissatisfaction against the French political elite, economic slowdown etc. Not only that they will not read the text of the EU Constitution but will pay very little attention to the deep aspects of the “yes” and “no” debate."

If I get you right, people are idiots and will not even understand why and what they are voting for. I would be courious to know what enables you to make such judgements. It's fine to express an opinion but not of a great democratic spirit to acertain that others vote like children. Sure, a large part of those who will vote against the constitution don't like Chirac, sure - as Ken said - they don't think that their representatives were not able to represent them well during the convention -, sure they believe that the ideology of the right-wing government in power is close to that embodied in the EU constitution, but that doesn't make it impossible for people to vote on the constitution and not as a sanction of the Government. I've never witnessed such a deap debate on any political question in France. It could be better; but essentially if everyone's arguments were taken seriously ; that is not interpreted as the result of emotional confusion.

You say that basically those against the constitution fit in 3 categories: 1/ the racists (Front National and UMP), 2/ the utopians (that don't know at all what they are saying) and 3/ those that don't even understand that the referendum is on the constitution and not about the French gorvernment.

That doesn't leave much space for resposnible people. Usually in a democracy we can chose between 2 or more responsible positions but here, according to you, there is a position of reason and an irrational position. This type of argument, is in my mind the negation of a democratic debate. If there is but one real position why vote at all ? People with reason could just decide evry thing for the others. Where, in your 3 catégories, do you put people like Fabius and Melanchon ? And organisations such as ATTAC ? With the Utopians ? the racists ?

Finally you say that we should not vote No in order not to vote with Le Pen and then tell us to vote yes although Sarcozy and Chirac share that opinion. Given the fact that Sarcozy may well be more dangerous than Le Pen, what is the logic to your argument ?