I believe that it would be very useful to carefully determine the elements that led most of the French people to say “No” in the referendum about the European Constitutional Treaty (ECT). This is a result that was obtained in a democratic way but understanding its motives will allow limiting its disastrous effects for France and Europe and avoiding false trails to which an erroneous interpretation of the vote could lead us - something very difficult as we lack accurate statistics about the reasons for the vote.
Let us point out that the “Yes” won in most of the big cities (with the exception of Marseille) and that the “No” won in rural areas and middle size cities. Let us say that the decision to carry out a referendum was legitimate. If we take into account what was at stake, this option entailed risks as experience shows that the answers to a referendum are always influenced by matters alien to the question posed. The way in which the referendum was organized increased the risk as the French were presented with a 191-page fascicle that included 448 articles, 36 protocols and 50 declarations. The French took it as an aggression and thought that the Constitution was too much complicated. I was in favor of sending them only the constitutive part and the Chart of Fundamental Rights. The third part, already in implementation, had, however, a crucial significance in the debate when, in fact, the Convention had only worked on the first part. The “treaty project that established a Constitution for Europe”, that I gave to the European Council meeting in Thessalonica on June 20, 2003, only had two parts, the Constitution and the Chart, included in a thin fascicle. This is the project that had the approval in principle of the European Council. The third part only aimed at guaranteeing the continuity of the implemented policies. As soon as they added the third part to the treaty, the referendum option was no longer the most appropriate one.
The initial impression that the French had of the Constitution was positive. Around 60% of them supported it when it was signed in Rome and this trend favourable to the text remained that way until February 2005. However, the economic situation got worse that month and the people’s confidence decreased along with their intentions to vote for the “Yes”. In the meantime, the popularity of the political leaders also decreased from March to May. In addition, some people, from the left and also from the right, used the referendum for their presidential ambitions in 2007. The campaign - already off its original objective - began amid this destabilization. Taken by surprise, the supporters of the “Yes” did not have a strategy to defend it.
Jean-Pierre Raffarin then presented himself as the head of the campaign to explain the ECT and increased the risks of the sanction vote. As a consequence of the treacherous arguments used by the supporters of the “No”, until the last minute, priority was not given to the essential challenge, ratifying the Constitution as such, but to the role of the main actors in regards to this ratification.
The supporters of the Treaty were unable to renovate the dream of Europe, ruined after 15 years of blaming Brussels for the national problems. The supporters of the “No” used a different method: the tactic of harassment that consisted of hitting there where they thought they could do damage regardless of the accuracy of what was being said. Their arguments about a possible renegotiation and about the ultra-liberal nature of the project were devastating. The good-intentioned French were deceived but they have not realized yet.
Actually, during the campaign, the merely constituent part was not questioned. An alternative proposal was not presented either. With regards to the second part, the Chart of Fundamental Rights, the internet campaign was led, generally, by leftist people who are afraid of certain interpretations of the text. However, it was the left wing of the Convention the one that insisted the most in including those elements. The artillery of the adversaries finally focused on the third part, which brought a lot of exchanges of arguments. It was a strange debate, almost surrealist as, I repeat, the text is only a legal means that serves to continue implementing the policies of the Union decided by previous treaties and that can only be modified by unanimity and which are not re-negotiable. What was at stake in this curious line of argument? Was it necessary to re-open the negotiation of previous treaties? Nobody really asked for that in France. In other places, nobody cares about the issue. Thus, and that’s what is amazing, the essential part of the Constitutional project emerged from the campaign of the referendum.
The motives of the “No” were described by commentators: the vote to condemn power, unemployment, the rejection of competition, the fear of expansions and, at the end, the problems to understand the constitutional text.
But, if we want to understand what happened we have to go beyond these reflections. Less than three months were enough to transform a vast approval into a large rejection. Distrust and fear were at the center of this change. The French are submitted to globalization and competition. In this context, Europe is regarded as a threat, especially after its expansion. Fear is accompanied by distrust of leaders.
The average voter feels as a victim of a conspiracy in which nobody consults him or takes his vote into account. That is why a strong “No” was so necessary to make themselves understood. This fear and distrust are used against the European leaders who are regarded as people who want to dismantle the French social model. They also appear in regards to the issue of the expansion, seen as a risk for social rights. Distrust even turns into anger when it comes to the incorporation of Turkey. In these circumstances, the “No” seemed more protective than the “Yes”.
This result is also worrying in regards to the strata division of the French society. The supporters of the “No” were insensitive to the arguments of the “Yes”. We saw that the less important the diploma, the stronger the “No” vote. Vertical dialogue, essential for democracy and for the internal promotion movement of society was replaced by a separation that feeds anti-elitism.
And the most worrying remark: young voters massively voted for the “No”. For the first time in European political history the youth choose the end. This reflection about the vote would not be complete if we do not mention the 45% who voted for the “Yes”. Their vote was not easy as it was within the bounds of an opposite trend. They knew how to remain firm in front of the xenophobic arguments of the supporters of the “No”. Even when they were only a minority, a vast minority, it is a solid foundation in which any active policy for the reactivation of France may rely on.
The French vote is a real disaster. It reinforces the negative image of France in Europe. How can we believe that 24 countries will accept renegotiating a treaty that they signed with us and that they will accept demands that even ourselves find hard to define? We will go back to the Treaty of Nice and its aberrant way of working. Probably, the more serious fact is that, for the first time in fifty years, the French and the German gave different answers to the same question. The result was what upset me the most. The “No” of France and Holland released all the centrifugal forces of Europe. If everyone limits himself to defending the interests of his country in Brussels, from where would the necessary force to organize the European continent come? This status quo is not unpleasant to everyone! While the Constitutional Treaty had finally been accepted by all our partners, even by those who had been reluctant at the beginning, like Great Britain and some Scandinavian countries, our “No” opens a new space for maneuvers. However, we have to praise the moderate way in which Tony Blair postponed the referendum in his country. Blair still hopes that the Treaty may have a favourable result.
Since the beginning, we all knew that there was a risk that the constitutional treaty might not be ratified by one or some countries. Actually, nobody thought it would be the case of France. Article 442 of the Treaty foresaw a similar situation. If, by 2006, four fifths of the member states have ratified the Treaty and one or some states have had difficulties to do it, the European Council will be in charge of the matter. Then, it will be possible to evaluate the Treaty and to make France understand that it has to renounce its illusions of renegotiation. Passion, fed by fear and distrust with regards to power, was more powerful than reason. Passions are legitimate. But reason can wait...

Le Monde (France)

Réflexions sur la crise de l’opinion à l’égard de l’Europe ,” by Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, Le Monde, June 15, 2005.