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Europe's Black Sheep?

toon, fear not, referendum

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Paris:– Monday, 18. April 2005:– Président Jacques Chirac, appearing on TV last Thursday night to promote a 'yes' vote for the referendum about the European Constitution, was not exactly convincing. The commercial TF1–TV stage set up in the Elysée Palace hosted 83 young voters with questions, three variety show hosters and a humble–voiced news anchor, and by most reports was a boring shambles.

It was this very same Président who launched the idea of a European Constitution in 2000, andphoto, posters, oui & non, referendum who then asked former President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing to oversee the sizeable European crew that composed it. All was fine and well, committeed, rubber–stamped and okayed, until Jacques Chirac decided to let the French vote for it.

French politicians are not crude bullies, and it is not tempting to imagine that they are master–class chess players either, unless there's more than a hint of paranoia around. Is the referendum a plot to smash the Socialists, or to put them in power?

'Nons' plastered over Socialist's 'Oui' poster.

Most of the 25 countries that need to ratify the treaty for the Constitution can do it with a parliamentary vote, and some have already done this. It makes sense to do it this way – if not, voters representing 450 million Europeans will have to go out and cast ballots.

Another thing – in order for the Constitution to be ratified it has to gain a majority in each country. Failing only one, the Constitution becomes a dead duck. Europe would remain stuck with the existing treaty of Nice, which has a no–change clause.

France has traditionally been a 'motor' of the European construction. Getting 25 governments, some quite recently mono–party states, to adopt a text that sets up a liberal system with considerable protection for its citizens must be a bit of a lump to swallow. If France chickens out where does it leave them?

Since Jacques was re–elected as président in 2002 the voters have had some chances to 'get even' for being forced to elect him, for ensuring that Jean–Marie Le Pen stayed a loser. Chirac's party was slammed in two subsequent elections, but this has resulted in no concessions to the opposition.

Polls that started out six weeks ago with a majority for the 'yes' vote, have switched to a 55 percent majority expressing an intention to vote 'no.' There's a poll–per–day saying this now and quite a long time yet to go.

At the moment the French are exasperated. There have been country–wide protests against the dismantling of the '35–hour' work week, coupled with demands for wage increases – for both state employees and private workers.

While patients are swallowing paying more – in cash – for state heath care, hospital emergencyphoto, rue soufflot, tour eiffel crews have gone on strike. Students are in the sixth week of demonstrations against school 'reforms,' and teachers are protesting against funding cuts due to 'reforms.' State researchers are out in the streets too, again.

The good view from the Panthéon.

Some general practitioners are 'on strike' against other health 'reforms,' and so are specialists. Judges are angry too, and the same goes for prison guards. Farmers, of course, are always angry about something, but this time it's about high gas prices and the low rates they are getting from the big distributors.

Wine growers have been fighting with the anti–riot police, and sailors and fishermen have recently been in Paris yelling about the high price of fuel. Salaried employees of all kinds have quit being quiet and have taken to the streets. Plants are closing and their ex–employees join the many beaters of the pavements.

Civil servants have been on the streets in huge numbers twice since the beginning of the year, protesting against pension 'reform' and loss of purchasing power. Postmen are protesting against the slimming of La Poste and the closing of rural bureaus. Cigarette dealers are protesting against the high tobacco taxes that are costing them revenues. Finally, part–time entertainment workers are still protesting, because promises made in 2003 haven't been kept. The list goes on.

In fact it seems as if all the bad predictions about what might happen if the European Constitution becomes law, is already happening. But this is impossible, so it must mean that if the constitution is accepted, all this turmoil now making waves will become redundant.

Still, people here are bitter. The Socialists are officially for a 'yes' vote – except for the Socialists against it – and their leader François Hollande urges followers to forget Chirac and not make Europe a 'sacrificial lamb.' "Europe deserves better," he said.

Meanwhile, on TV Jacques Chirac was telling the young people 'not to have fear,' no doubt inspired by recent events in Rome. But he also warned that a failure to vote 'yes' would place France in the role of being Europe's 'black sheep.' That a Frenchman would consider this a major dishonor tells us what an unusual place France has become.

Despite numerous promises, there are no simple examples of the 800–odd page Constitution available for ordinary folks to read. Maybe the supermarket chain I don't shop at has them, or my post office. There are supposed to be three million copies freely available, promised months ago.

There are a small avalanche of books available and some of these have quietly become substantial best–sellers. I have a set of seven .PDF documents concerning the treaty. The one with the text of the treaty itself is 137 pages, but it starts with chapter three so it may not be complete. It is heavy going.

Finally, there is a theory that the French like to say 'no' to every new thing that comes along. Actually this is what parents constantly say to their kids, so the goal of every French kid is to grow up and become self–indulgent, and gain the right to say 'no' to their kids.

I can't find any explanation for Jacques Chirac's decision to hold a referedum. All we can do is wait forphoto, rue bievre the polls to close on Mother's Day, on Sunday, 29. May, to find out what happens.

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