Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Guest blogger: We're fed up 

What to make of the French referendum result? What better person to ask than our guest blogger, the French-Australian writer Sophie Masson (visit Sophie's website here).

We're fed up

"Ras le bol"--we're fed up--that's the strong feeling behind the crushing victory of the "No" vote in France's referendum on the EU constitution this last Sunday. People in France ARE fed up--of a political and media elite that lives in its own pompous little bubble and constantly talks down to them, that goes about its merry way without taking account of them; they are fed up of not living in a truly democratic system (the French republican system, to my mind, combines the worst aspects of an authoritarian monarchy with the ideological excesses of abstract idealism that blathers on constantly about the "rights of man" without actually caring about individual rights). People are fed up of high unemployment, of broken promises, of massive social problems. They're fed up of the technocratic tyrants in Brussels who interfere in each and ever aspect of ordinary life, especially France's cherished food. They're fed up of seeing their industries going under and fed up of being unable to manipulate their currency as they used to be. They're fed up of being on the losing side in the world, of being lectured by all the bien-pensants, too. They're fed up of having their pride wounded; and they're fed up to the back teeth not only of wolfish Jacques Chirac but of most of the other members of his merry band--and that of the Socialists, and just about everyone in mainstream politics.

They don't want Turkey in Europe; they don't want foreign workers coming in; they don't want political integration with Europe--they want the "Europe of the nations" not Europe as super-state. They are fed up of being stuck in a spiraling form of national depression. For once, they were given an opportunity to say what they really think, about a project that they felt was largely conducted behind their backs; and they took that opportunity.

But are they ready to face the tough decisions? Would they really follow Nicolas Sarkozy when he says that France badly needs reform? All French governments are scared of their people--scared of the national tendency to rush out into the street and scream and shout and threaten revolution. It remains to be seen whether, even if the amazing happens and Chirac falls on his sword, as he damn well ought to do, and the Parliament is dissolved, opening up the way for fresh elections--it remains to be seen whether the French people would grit their teeth and agree to things which may well be for the good of their country, but will hurt--especially harshly in the short term.

But "ras le bol", though a general feeling, does not explain everything. It's interesting to look at the map of France to see how each region voted. There's a good one published by
"Le Monde". Looking at the map, it's clear that the far North and the far South were the strongest No voters--these areas are strongly leftwing, in the old style, but also in recent times most inclined to Le Pen. The North is old working class, very depressed industrial areas, lots of immigrants; the South is old peasantry, very suspicious of outsiders, but also with high unemployment and lots of immigrants. The West--Vendee, Brittany--which is still very traditional, rural France, voted Yes--though only just. Vendee and the two most 'Breton' departments--Morbihan and Finistere--not only have been insulated from high unemployment and Muslim immigration (it is rare indeed to see a Muslim in those regions), but they have a high proportion of small business, and their history predisposes them to be much more suspicious of the French state than of the European proposal (in the Revolution, the Western provinces rose up in revolt against the revolutionaries, and were massacred without mercy--they still carry those memories very strongly.). However, to counteract that, other provinces that also have a history of revolt against the French state--for instance, Corsica and the Basque country (known as Pyrenees Atlantiques on the department map, right down the far south-west, on the Atlantic) voted No--the Basques at 52.14 No, the Corsicans at 56.5 No.

The highest No vote was recorded in the very northernmost departement, Pas de Calais, at 69.5 percent (its surrounding departments also overwhelmingly voted No); the highest Yes vote in one of the Ile de France (Paris region) departements, at 66 percent. Bas-Rhin, in the east, which features the European Parliament's capital, Strasbourg, not surprisingly voted 56.10 percent Yes; other strongly Yes vote departments were also in the East, close to the Alps: Haute-Savoie with 53.93, Rhone with 54.17. In my parents' home department of Lot et Garonne, in the south west, the vote, by contrast was 61.5 percent No (and in their village, apparently, it split dramatically with 9 people voting Yes, 120 voting No!); whilst in one of my sisters' home department, Ariege, at the foothills of the Pyrenees, it was 63.56 No. Even in my eldest sister's home department, Haute-Garonne, which includes the seat of Airbus, major European flagship company (for which she works, incidentally), the No vote was 53 percent.

For me, this result was exciting and interesting. Though I'm a supporter of a "Europe of the nations", a prosperous, peaceful place that trades freely yet respects national boundaries and the different cultures that makes it up, I'm not at all keen on the kind of Europe proposed by this constitution, a behemoth bureaucratic oligarchy imposed on a continent where there's not even a common language. The result in France is an all too rare example of democracy at work in a country that badly needs it, a breath of fresh air, and I'm hopeful it might lead to some real, useful change. But I'm also quite aware of the fact that a) it may not lead to any real change in the attitude or responsiveness of the political and media/intellectual class in France, b) it may simply run out of puff as a protest vote and then it'll be business as usual; c) it may well lead to unwelcome consequences, such as the ultra left and ultra right thinking they now speak for all of France, which isn't the case at all (there certainly aren't 56 percent of extremists in France). Interesting times, anyway, are on the horizon.

Two other interesting perspectives - one from France, by Sylvain Charat, director of policy studies at the French think tank Eurolibnetwork, and one from the Anglosphere, by Mark Steyn.


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