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Just Say 'Non' to Progressive Values

In voting against the EU constitution, the French left allowed its hatred of Jacques Chirac to trump good sense.
 
 
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The French predictably voted "non!" to the proposed EU constitution this weekend. While the outcome of the referendum was hardly surprising, the reactions of some U.S. commentators to the vote were as collectively incoherent as the motives of the voters themselves.

Diehard conservatives in the United States cheered on French Communists and leftists for their success in frustrating a multinational challenger to U.S. global dominance, while many on the American left expressed solidarity with their French comrades who joined with fascists to vote down a “capitalist” constitution. The irony of this blinkered endorsement is redoubled by the rejected constitution itself, which guarantees rights undreamt of by any liberal in the United States. This is a constitution derided by the conservative Weekly Standard for guaranteeing “entitlement to social security benefits and social services providing protection in cases such as maternity, illness, industrial accidents, dependency or old age, and in the case of loss of employment.” How can so-called liberals in a country that has 45 million uninsured citizens dismiss a document that ensures the right of access to preventive health care and the right to benefit from medical treatment?

The draft constitution even has a clause on animal rights -- whither Brigitte Bardot? -- and recognizes equal rights for religions and “philosophical” associations for all those born-again atheists.

Who needs that kind of Anglo-Saxon capitalism?

The weakness of the constitution is not so much its alleged corporate agenda, but its dense and prolix prose, which reflects the attempt to accommodate everyone from British conservatives to East European emulators of American excess that has led to far too much ambiguity. In the end, those ambiguities gave a wide spectrum of the French public the excuses they needed to vote against the real issue on the ballot: Jacques Chirac. This includes the French Socialists and Communists who, albeit with deep anguish, voted for Chirac at the last election to keep Le Pen’s rightwing and ultra-nationalist party from winning. This time around, the same folks voted "no" alongside Le Pen’s racists and fascists -- a sight that should at least give U.S. progressives some pause for thought.

French workers have every reason to want to defend their social benefits against the encroaching Anglo-Saxon free market capitalism. But perhaps they should first have looked across the English Channel, where British conservatives oppose the constitution because of all the benefits it guarantees ordinary people. Indeed, most British labor unions that once opposed joining Europe as a capitalist plot now recognize the superior protections offered by Brussels. And while much has been made of the threat of immigration, if that mythical Polish plumber turns up in Paris with his wrench in hand, the constitution entitles him to the same, considerable statutory benefits of his French colleagues.

So what will the ultimate effect be of this French cupidity? It is true that by indulging themselves in giving le doigt to Chirac, the French were as reckless of the consequences to them and the rest of the world as American voters who voted for George Bush out of fear and paranoia. However, despite the “sky falling down” rhetoric that the “Oui” campaigners deployed to scare voters, the French referendum is unlikely to have such dire effects as Bush’s new term of office.

For a start, it will not dissolve the European Union, which, at worst, will remain in its present Rube Goldberg, ad hoc state – and that may in it self be a political blessing in disguise. It may delay the supplanting the dollar by the Euro, but it is unlikely to break up the currency union.

It may also push back the creation of an official European foreign policy, but the formulation of such a policy -- acceptable to all the disparate members -- would in any case be a long, drawn-out process. The reality is that the Europeans have been increasingly acting in concert, and would indeed be doing so much more frequently if it were not for Tony Blair, who seems determined to confirm Charles de Gaulle’s suspicion that Britain is no better than an American Trojan horse in Europe.

After an abysmal failure to develop a common position on the Balkans, the European Union has incrementally developed a number of shared policies, whose coherence becomes more impressive given that these often put the EU at loggerheads with the United States. The EU continues to support multilateralism and the United Nations, has stayed firm in its support of the International Criminal Court, and has been a collective voice of reason in the face of neoconservative hysteria over Iran and North Korea. Moreover, the EU has consistently called for more aid and debt relief to the developing world.

Much of this consensus has developed without an official charter while muddling along with a bewildering variety of different institutions and treaties. Ironically, the EU constitution is an attempt to harmonize and rationalize these policies, and to do so within the context of an agreed decision-making process that gives more direct and transparent input to citizens and states alike. And in rejecting the constitution, the French left also said "non" to more democratic and rational alternative to rightwing visions of empire in the global arena.

In the end, the European Union is a good idea, both for its own citizens and for the rest of the world. Imagine, 450 million people with near-universal health care! Eventually, in some form or other, the Europeans will adopt a constitution to reflect what they have already achieved. Perhaps the next time around, Chirac -- if he is still around -- will campaign for a "No" vote and provoke the French into supporting it!

Ian Williams writes on the United Nations for AlterNet. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy in Focus, the Nation, and Salon.