Sunday, May 29, 2005

Roger Cohen hit the nail on the head yesterday when it comes to the French referendum on the EU constitution.

Each of the ten points that Cohen makes are worth reading, but three in particular caught my eye:
3. Modern capitalism, with its free markets, open borders, mobile labor, and openness to foreign investment, has not been entirely accepted or digested in France. That may seem extraordinary. This is a capitalist country with some of the world's most competitive enterprises. It has been a driving force of the EU, whose effect from the initial merging of the French and Germany steel industries has been to open economies. Yet, lodged in the DNA of the French fonctionnaire and worker are a rejection, or at least a fierce skepticism, of what is called "Anglo-Saxon capitalism" or "neo-liberalism." It is the questionable identification of the constitution with this form of capitalism that has led the French left to reject it in droves. "The conviction remains broad that freedom and free markets are for sharks," said Francois Bayrou, the leader of the center-right Union for French Democracy.

8. The passionate exchanges within French society and (often divided) families provoked by the referendum have revealed the extent to which the EU had evolved in recent years without adequate discussion among the more than 450 million citizens of the EU. Again, the French are to be thanked for igniting this debate.

10. France, a medium-sized power, is unsure of its place in the world. Only such uncertainty can explain the fears inspired by globalization, foreigners, China, the United States and an expanded Europe that have surfaced. Europe was supposed to be a means for France to box above its weight on the international stage. But many now view the EU as undermining France. A frustrated nationalism has been rekindled. "We are living a profoundly irrational moment," said Bayrou.
Regardless of the results from today's referendum, each of these points will still hold true. Many in France will continue to eye "liberalised" capitalism with profound suspicion, to remain unconvinced that there is a shared identity between themselves and those in eastern Europe (let alone Turkey), and to feel deeply unsettled about the relative insignificance of France on a global level.

In this sense, the value of the referendum for France really has less to do with regional unity and more to do with national introspection -- if nothing else, it's opened up popular fears and set them within its political debate.

As bad as things have been for Chirac, his trouble now is that for the foreseeable future that's exactly where they're going to stay.


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