France votes no in EU referendum

Sunday, May 29, 2005

In a result predicted by polls, a 54.87% majority of French voters voted non in Sunday's European Constitution referendum. Of France's 42 million eligible voters, over 70% turned out at the 55 thousand polling stations across the country, which were open from 8:00 to 20:00 on Sunday (except in Paris and Lyon where voting finished at 22:00, and French oversea possessions and other polling centers in the Americas, which voted on Saturday in order not to have them vote when the results are already known). A 70% turnout is very large compared to Spain 42%.

The result comes as no surprise to European political commentators as opinion polls had consistently suggested that the "No" camp was on course for a strong victory. Indeed, the last opinion poll before the actual referendum suggested a 56% win for the "No" camp.

The treaty was supported by all 3 major political parties (center-left PS, center-right UMP, center-right UDF), though a significant minority of the PS, and some in the UMP, chose to oppose it. It was opposed by the French Communist Party, as well as Trotskyite movements such as the Revolutionary Communist League, other far-left movements such as the Party of the Workers, parts of the Socialist party, parts of The Greens some members of UMP, and the nationalist National Front.

According to polls, the vast majority of blue collar workers, farmers and other categories threatened by globalization and international concurrence voted against the treaty. The urban, better educated or richer population voted in favor.

Some supporters of the "No" camp have argued that the mainstream media was biased in favor of the "yes" cause, and this was supported by some analyses of times awarded by television to both camps. However, the "no" camp also waged an aggressive campaign, with the walls of major cities being plastered with posters linking the EU Constitution and the European Union to all kind of social ills, such as high unemployment.

You can read the entire proposed European Constitution at Wikisource


According to polls collected by TNS-Sofres, the largest polling company in France, voters gave the following reasons for voting no:

  • 46% -- feared that unemployment would worsen under the constitution
  • 40% -- were discontent with the current situation in France
  • 35% -- believed a no would permit the constitution to be renegotiated
  • 34% -- found the constitution too economically liberal and difficult to understand
  • 19% -- thought the constitution threatened the identity of France
  • 18% -- wanted to prevent the entry of Turkey to the EU
  • 12% -- followed certain political leaders who asked them to vote no.

Note, however, that such polls offer only a limited number of answers and may thus misrepresent the actual motives of the people.

Arguments of the "No" vote

Proponents of the "No" vote, both on the left and right, argued that the proposed constitution enshrined what they claim is an undemocratic Europe, with much of the responsibilities granted to a body of unelected political appointees, the European Commission and not enough checks and balances. They also point out that it vests much legislative power in the European Council, representing the executives of the various countries; this is seen as a bad arrangement with respect to Separation of powers. While the treaty adds supplemental powers for the directly elected European Parliament, many opponents, particularly on the left, consider that they are still insufficient in order to provide checks and balances.

Much criticism was directed at the length of the proposed Constitution. The real treaty submitted to French voters is about 80 pages long, which many argue is too long and complex for a constitution. It is followed by 100 pages of appendices, declarations and protocols, some of them dealing with matters such as oil refining in the Dutch West Indies or specific nuclear power plants in Eastern Europe.

Opponents of the treaty argue that the proposed constitution will largely hamstring the French government and prevent it from leading its own policies in matters as diverse as social services or foreign policy.

Much of the opposition was targeted at Part III of the proposed constitution, which sets the policies of the European Union. Opponents point out that the constitutions of most countries, including France, do not specify policies explicitly, except for a limited number of fundamental rights, but rather are limited to specifying the core principles and procedures of how governmental institutions work. Part III, they argued, sets in stone a number of economic and social choices, while these should be a matter of political choice depending on democratic votes.

Both left-wing and right-wing opponents consider that some of these policies, already applied and enforced by the European Union, are disastrous for France's economy and society as well as European's economy and society. One primary target is the free trade policies with countries having less expensive workforce and social protection, which, they argue, drive French workers out of work (2.7 million French people are out of work).

This was recently exemplified by the so-called "Bolkestein directive", which would have enabled service providers in the European Union to work anywhere in the union according to the legislation and social practices of their own country, not of the country where they'd work: this was caricatured as the example of the "Polish plumber" coming to work for a meager fraction of what French plumbers demand.

Much is made of délocalisations — that is, the transferring of industries and, now, services to countries with lower production costs, depriving French workers of jobs at a time when unemployment is high.

As a consequence, both left-wing and right-wing opponents of the treaty and of current and proposed European Union policies argue in favor of some sort of protectionism.

In the field of international relations, many opponents contend that the proposed constitution would make the European Union largely subservient to NATO, an institution dominated by the United States of America.

A factor in the opposition to the constitution is the recent enlargement of the European Union, a major move which was not approved by a referendum. Opponents consider that open border concurrence with much poorer economies is bad for French economy; many express uneasiness at subsidizing and collaborating with governments that they consider subservient to the interests of the United States, such as Poland's (Poland chose to buy warplanes from the United States after receiving some European Union subsidies, a movement which resulted in many questioning the financial and diplomatic priorities of their government).

Finally, many seized the occasion to express their discontent at France's political elite and to president Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin's government. While unemployment had receded under the rule of center-left former prime minister Lionel Jospin, it has climbed against under Raffarin's administration despite his and Chirac's promises.

Left-wing arguments

Much opposition was directed towards what many on the Left consider the "ultra-liberal" character of the Constitution: that is, they argue, the proposed constitution makes permanent economic policies which they consider disastrous for French society:

  • the destruction of public services, with forced scaling-down and privatization (some groups tied the closure of post offices to the European Union);
  • the vesting of much power in the European Central Bank, governed by political appointees, with the sole goal of ensuring the stability of the markets whereas, opponents argue, a major objective should be the reduction of unemployment
  • the encouragement of fiscal and "social dumping", whereby companies relocate themselves to the countries with the lowest standards of social services.

Left wing opponents, they say, want Europe, but another Europe, which, in their view, would put the concerns of common people before those of financial markets and the wealthy. They contend that free market capitalism, which they consider enforced by the constitution, destroys lives and benefits the financial establishment, but not the average worker. They argue that open trade and concurrence encourages unemployment in France.

They argue, bluntly, that the constitution is the constitution of right-winger Chirac and MEDEF, the union of larger French private employers. MEDEF, due to its current leader Ernest-Antoine Seillière, is very unpopular among the left.

Left-wing opponents argued that the Charter of rights included in the constitution was largely indicative, not prescriptive. They questioned the say that other members of the union may have in matters such as the right to abortion and the separation of Church and State, which they consider threatened by certain governments from Catholic countries, which, during the negotiation of the treaties, had insisted on adding references to the Christian heritage of Europe.

Another argument from the left was that the Constitution called for member states to strengthen their military forces. Opponents argue that this would be wasteful spending, would result in an arm race with the United States, China and others, and would result in wars and more instability.

Many leaders of the opposition to the "No" also simply called for a blow to Chirac.

Right-wing arguments

Many right-wing opponents argue that Turkey, which has applied for European Union membership, should not become a member, and that acceptance of the Constitution would pave the way for this. They point out that the new Eastern European members, whose joining many of them opposed, were accepted without a referendum; they also point out that Turkey is for the most part not located in Europe, but in the Middle-East, and that it borders countries such as Iran and Iraq.

In addition, many supporters of the right-wing are opposed to a union with countries whose culture they consider too far from France, and are concerned about unchecked immigration from these. They also consider that the direction the European Union is heading will only reinforce unchecked immigration from poor Muslim countries, which they think is bad socially and economically for Europe. This point of view is disputed by many economists, who point out that due to aging of France and other European countries increasing immigration is the only viable option for boosting the existing economies.

Such arguments are likely not to have much impact on many French voters. The results of this referendum, as well as those of the 2002 presidential election, show some deep distrust of the population for the political class as well as for "experts". There is high skepticism against economists and politicians who promote what they consider to be necessary reforms, whereas despite those reforms unemployment has remained high and standards of living have lessened for many.

Arguments of the "YES" vote

Supporters of the proposed European Constitution contend that it is a marked improvement over preceding treaties governing the European Union. They point out that it gives increased powers to the directly elected European Parliament compared to the politically appointed European Commission and European Council. They also point out that it gives a right of petition to European citizens, which they contend is a marked democratic advance. Opponents point out that this right may be exercised only with strict conditions (1,000,000 signatures from a "significant" number of countries) and with uncertain consequences. Furthermore, they point out that the basic undemocratic handling and procedures followed for the legislative enactment of laws are kept in place, and that neither the EC or the counsel of ministers have been internally made more democratic.

Proponents of the constitution consider that these improvements make the European Union markedly more democratic than it was before, while opponents may be of the opinion that something which is better then extremely bad, is still no good, and consider a no-vote a chance to come up with something better. Some supporters of the constitution contend that certain European measures that many consider ill-advised (such as the Bolkestein directive or the directive on software patents) would not have been adopted if the stronger checks and balances provided for by the constitution had been implemented, but there is little actual basis to support such a claim.

Part II of the proposed European Constitution is a Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. This charter lists a number of human rights, such as the prohibition of torture, the prohibition of the death penalty, etc., and reinstates that the Union follows the Council of Europe's (COE) European Convention on Human Rights and the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). All members of the European Union must belong to the COE and accept ECHR jurisdiction. Proponents of the constitution consider that this reinstatement of human rights is of great import, especially with respect to recent new members, which may not have much of a tradition of democracy, rule of law and human rights.

Proponents of the constitution dispel the accusation that the constitution is ultra-libéral (i.e. supports unfettered free market and prohibits social policies in member countries). They contend that these dispositions are not new, and were already to be found in the 1957 Treaty of Rome. They point out that unbiased concurrence is a the heart of European policies since the beginnings of the European Economic Community.

They contend that, for a large part, the proposed constitution is just the consolidation of the preceding treaties governing the European Union into a single document.

They admit out that the Constitution, like all works designed by a committee out of compromise, may be bulky. However, they point out, France cannot expect to force its choices on other countries. While some French parties may have preferred that the constitution contains more "social" dispositions, such social dispositions would be opposed by countries such as the United Kingdom, and there is little hope that any renegotiation would get them accepted. French Citizens, they claim, should be ready to accept an imperfect text.

Some supporters say that refusing the constitution will diminish the clout of France in European institutions and may make it more difficult in the future to have its interests be taken into account at that level.

Some right-wing supporters of the treaty contend that the European Union is a necessary force in order to push what they consider to be necessary reforms upon France.

Supporters of the treaty point out that the question of the constitution is disconnected from that of the accession of Turkey. President Chirac has pledged that the accession of Turkey would be put to a referendum before French voters (the accession treaty of former Eastern Bloc countries was ratified by the French Parliament without a referendum).

Finally, supporters of the proposed Constitution point out that this referendum is about the ratification of a treaty, and is not a plebiscite on the actions of president Jacques Chirac and prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, both of which are deeply unpopular.