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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 referendum. 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.

Green Euro–deputy Daniel Cohn–Bendit suggested the result of a 'no' vote. "Do you think if Marie–George Buffet, Fabius, Besancenot or Bové* were elected president they could renegotiate the constitution? No, Sarkozy would be president! And on that evening, it'll be Bush who will be making Champagne toasts."

The Quartier Latin's Rue de Bièvre.

*Marie-George Buffet, Fabius, Besancenot or Bové - respectively, head of the French Communist Party, dissident Socialist Party leader, leader of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionaire, and spokesman of the Peasant's Federation; all campaigning for a 'no' vote.

Click here for referendum info, in French.

Echoes of a Fiasco

After describing Jacques' sales pitch for the referendum on TF1–TV Thursday night as 'chaotic,' newspapers mentioned that opinion polling went on in the background. Instead of the Président giving a boost for a 'yes' vote the opposite happened. On Saturday Le Parisien published results of a CSA poll it commissioned that indicated intentions for a 'no' vote has risen a point, to 56 percent.

A snap poll of a small sample those who witnessed the broadcast revealed that 51 percent thought that the président was not convincing, while 40 percent thought otherwise.

Programmed to appeal to a youthful audience, the broadcast failed to reach its target. It was estimated that 19.4 percent of the national audience of households under 50 watched TF1, while 22.8 percent watched a re–run of the horse opera 'Pale Rider' on France–3. Worse, while TF1 booked 21.8 percent of the 15–34 audience, 33.4 percent of the same age group watched 'La Nouvelle Star' on M6–TV.

The same 'exit' poll conducted after the broadcast, revealed some contradictions. If it were just a question of whether Europe should have a constitution, then 59 percent thought that Chirac was convincing. Another 52 percent thought that Europe should have a common foreign policy, which will be the case if the constitution is ratified.

Nobody seems to understand thatphoto, lux loungers, pool there is no possibility of a 'renegotiation' of the treaty for the Constitution. On this, opinion was about equally divided about Chirac's explanation. If the French vote 'no' in the referendum, that is the end of it – finished for all. A completely new text would have to be written.

Doubt of the Président was highest concerning the effect of the Constitution on daily life in France, the future of public services, and the possibility of social gains. The French don't want to go backwards.

Hotbed of dissent takes Sunday off.

Finally, Jacques Chirac was unable to convince a majority that there is no connection between the adoption of the Constitution and the entry of Turkey into the European Union.

The wilder anti–constitutionalists insist that a 'yes' vote in the referendum will mean Turkey's accession to membership, almost automatically. In reality a Turkish bid is on the table, but it is unlikely to be serious before 10 years, and if it goes ahead it would take another 5 years for Turkey to conform to EU terms. By then Turkey is unlikely to be the same, and the same will be true for the European Union.

The conservative German paper Die Welt suggested that the Président's exercise on Thursday night had 'an air of East Germany, sometimes menacing, sometimes paternalistic,' explaining to the French 'how to vote.' The liberal Süddeutsche Zeitung said it was 'a second–class show.' In en editorial the Munich paper said that Chirac isn't the one who can sell the Constitution to the French.

London's Financial Times thinks that a French 'no' will be contagious. The Guardian suggested that a 'no' in France could be fatal for the European Union's ambition to be as politically powerful as its size merits. Italy's Il Sole 24 Ore mocked Chirac for using the late Pope's phrase, 'there's nothing to fear.' Sweden's Aftonbladet wondered if Socialists would vote 'no' against the Constitution, or in an attempt to depose Chirac and his 'relatively corrupted bourgeois clique.'

I missed earlier comments by European papers after Jacques Chirac went on the road, for example, to Spain – to boost morale for a 'yes' vote there. It's another indication of the 'new' Europe when political leaders from one country go to another and effectively mix in their 'internal' affairs. Did the Spanish right–wing say 'boo?' Hardly likely since they were for the Constitution before being overtaken by the Socialists – who were against it when they were the opposition. Spaniards, in their referendum, voted 'yes' for adoption of the Constitution.


On tonight's TV–news it was announced that 46 million copies of the Constitution are being printed and will be mailed to all households before 14. May, leaving exactly 15 days to read the near–200 page document.

There are 42 days left until the polls for the referendum open in France on Sunday, 29 May.

Killer Fire

The 'hotel' fire in Paris that killed 22 in the night of Thursday–Friday - concerned a building rented by the city to house the homeless and families without residence papers. As far as known the hotel was in fairly good shape and the blaze was accidental. It was the first hotel fire in 30 years with such a loss of lives.

Sporting News

On Wednesday, in a simple ceremony in a gilded Parisian palace, Bruce Willis was honored by being made an officer of the Order of Arts and Letters, by the Minister of Culture, Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, who noted that Willis was born in Europe. In French, Bruce 'Butch' Willis thanked France, "Pour ce grand, grand honneur." On Thursday in pouring rain, Willis was on the Champs–Elysées to present his new film, 'Otage,' to the press. After the premiere at the Gaumont Marignan, Willisphoto, lux loungers zipped off to the 'in' restaurant, La Suite, where Champagne flowed in rivers for 300 close friends, presided over by the current 'reine des nuits,' Cathy Guetta.

More revolutionaries dozing in the Luxembourg.

Gérard Depardieu's allegedly drunken appearance on the TV show 'Ça balance à Paris' was reported by the UK paper, The Independent. However since the show was broadcast via cable on Paris Première it wasn't seen by the whole world. On TV to promote his new book, 'Ma Cuisine,' Gérard took exception to critic Martin Monestier, calling him an idiot repeatedly – 'un abruti' – and then a 'tête de lard.' The presenter Michel Field was unable to get the upper hand, until the patisserie chef Pierre Hermé offered Gérard a piece of cake. Television is so dull these days that fans have to have a considerable age in order to remember Serge Gainsbourg calmly lighting a cigarette by setting fire to a a 500 franc note. Serge, if you read this, please come back.

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