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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Le Jour où la France a dit "Non"!

by By Jean-Paul Piérot

The Day France Said "Non"

Translated by Laura Wheeler

Translated Friday 9 June 2006, by Laura

Anti-Liberalism. Just one year ago, 54.7% of French voters rejected the European Constitution project, based on “unfettered and unfeigned” competition. Will this strong action have any political fallout during the presidential and parliamentary elections of 2007?

Sunday, May 29, 2005, 8pm. The verdict fell, without appeal: 54.7% of voters said « no » to the European constitution project. The President, the government, France’s main political parties, from the UMP to the Socialist party, but also the little world of the media, had all been urging the French people to vote in favor of the constitution. The vote was all the more significant given the almost 70% participation statistics, whereas just one year earlier, European elections broke a record of absenteeism (only 42.8% voted). The vote was a real wake-up call for cheerleaders of the “oui” campaign.

The « black sheep » of Europe.

In spite of survey results showing widespread hostile feelings towards the treaty drawn up by the convention presided over by Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, these leaders were hoping that undecided voters would reverse the trend. During the campaign’s final days, propaganda gathered new steam, warning that if the “no” were to win: France would experience an unprecedented crisis entailing institutional freeze-ups, and putting the country into quarantine, making us the “black sheep” of Europe, according to Jacques Chirac.

In Paris, the Place de la République took on the festive colors of its major rendez-vous, invaded by a young and joyful crowd. The day’s edition of l’Humanité, fresh off the press, was snatched up and held aloft like a billboard. A holiday feeling prevailed. Three years previously, thousands of young people, often the same ones, had already marched on the Place, in a completely different atmosphere. Paris’ youth displayed their anger and incomprehension following the election results on April 21, 2002 which allowed Mr Le Pen (extreme-right leader) to obtain the second place in the presidential elections.

May 29th, 2005 was not a carbon copy of April 21st, but rather, its exact opposite. In 2002, disappointment in the Jospin government had led to widespread political cynicism, feeding voter absenteeism and resulting in the disaster for which France is still paying the consequences. In contrast, the 2005 referendum was the occasion for a stronger sense of political alignment. Sociologist Michel Simon (1) stated, “Millions of men and women were able to see the link between the issue at hand and employment, salaries, social protection, public services... Voting as a weapon of self-defense suddenly became worthwhile again.

The outcome was the result of a campaign unlike any France had ever experienced. The treaty project (TCE) strived to give a constitutional basis for the liberal orientation of European construction. This orientation is summed up in a phrase in Article 3 of the text which consecrates the European Union as a space for “free and fair competition”.
Furthermore, the text validates all the strategies already at work to liberalize public services, the workplace, to question the role of social protection, while turning its back to any possibility of creating a social and democratic Europe which values and extends current social rights.

From the European Commission’s point of view, the treaty’s ratification should have been a pure formality. In countries where a referendum was scheduled, governments were banking on an uninterested, unaware public, and massive abstention. Such a scenario took place in Spain in February 2005.

France was another story. Whereas both the UMP and the UDF parties, but also the Socialists and Greens (after some internal discussions), called for “yes” votes, debate about the text quickly became a major issue for the French populace. The Communist party, the only party in Parliament in favour of the “no” vote, pulled a “no holds barred” anti-liberal campaign event. High-profile Socialist names such as Laurent Fabius, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Henri Emmanuelli, but also a number of Greens joined the anti-treaty struggle in spite of their parties’ offical stance.

« If you’re on the left, you vote “no” », declared Marie-George Buffet during a meeting in autumn 2004, when public surveys were evaluating the “yes” vote at 65%. The PCF leader bent over backwards to bring together political leaders who had never before met: Olivier Besancenot, for the LCR party, socialist senator Jean-Luc Mélenchon, or Francine Bavay or José Bové from the Green party.
But the movement would never have carried the day, were it not for the incredibly strong grass-roots movement, the “appel des 200” (a strongly-worded document with 200 signatories calling for people to reject the treaty), the creation of pluralist committees throughout France, and the thousands of meetings where the project was examined in detail. L’Humanité published the entire text in a special, highly popular October 2004 edition.

The referendum campaign high-lighted the strength of the anti-liberal movement, which is quite ironic given the fact that the European Constitution was intended to consecrate the liberal trend which has been guiding the strategies of national governments. Consequently, certain xenophobic themes linked to national sovereignty (Turkey’s admission) which were developped as arguments against the treaty by the right and extreme-right parties, only played marginal roles in the outcome of the votes, as per the post-referendum survey results.

Last year was no mere temper tantrum: one year later, the French people seem to be in the same frame of mind, or perhaps even more hostile to the current governing mode of Europe: 10% of “oui” voters now say that they would change their vote (2).

There are at least two reasons for that. First of all, the announced catastrophes did not take place. Secondly, European leaders who had to interrupt the process of the treaty’s ratification after the Dutch and French “non”, have still deigned to listen to the message from the ballot boxes. By voting against the TCE, the majority of left-wing voters regardless of party lines, and in defiance of their parties’ official stances (for PS and Green parties), joined arms in a unified rejection of liberalism.

Powerful protests

The strength of the anti-CPE demonstrations, sustained by public opinion, confirms the breadth of the spirit of discontent in French society. Now, the question remains: will voters rally as clearly in 2007 against the right-wing and the plans Nicolas Sarkozy has for “breaking” with France’s current social model as they did against the Europe of “free and fair competition”?

This challenge is for the entire left-wing, but first and foremost, for the architects of the “non” victory. What was possible for a referendum is certainly not automatically transferable to the context of a political election. New conferences need to be organized, appeals signed. Is a new dynamic moving into place? No one could predict in the autumn of 2004 that the “non” would carry the day the following spring, and to a certain extent, May 29th pushed back the limits of the impossible.

(1) L’Humanité, June 4, 2005.
(2) Libération, May 17, 2006, LH2 survey.
Jean-Paul Piérot

Article first appeared in l’Humanité on 29/05/2006

URL: http://www.humanite.presse.fr/journal/2006-05-29/2006-05-29-830640

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