Monday, March 14, 2005

They are building a continent

Of course, there are some things which the French do extremely well. One, not entirely confined to their political classes, is to squabble interminably and another, of more general utility, is to demonstrate.

The first talent was well illustrated this morning by a long piece in The Independent, which was the only "quality" mainstream newspaper to carry a substantive EU story today.

Headed: "French vote on EU threatens to tear apart Socialist party", Paris correspondent John Lichfield retails how the Socialists risks tearing themselves apart over the EU referendum. "The mood within the party is terrible, dramatic, the worst I've known in 20 years as a Socialist," a former minister and leading member of the party tells Lichfield.

Despite the internal referendum last December, when members returned a pro-constitution majority, the party's left wing and several senior leaders have refused to abide by the result. Leader of the Socialist "yes" camp, François Hollande, was booed and pelted with snowballs by anti-EU treaty Socialists and members of more extreme left-wing parties at a rally in France last week.

Former party secretary general, Henri Emmanuelli, is now saying that a Socialist vote for the constitution would be a repeat of earlier "mistakes" such as Socialist politicians' support for the collaborationist Marshal Pétain in 1940.

Akin to spitting in church, his remark drew furious denunciations from Hollande and other party leaders, forcing Emmanuelli to apologise – but the deed had been done, signalling the eruption of open warfare within the Parti Socialiste

More immediately, says The Independent, this threatens the bi-partisan centre-right and centre-left campaign for a "yes" vote in the referendum, due on 29 May.

And although polls still show a 60-40 split in favour of the constitution, pro-EU politicians of right and left fear that high unemployment, a widespread sense of political and economic malaise, the split in the Socialists and the extreme unpopularity of the centre-right government of Jean-Pierre Raffarin could yet sink the "yes" vote.

That was the Independent "take" on the situation, but others has already had their say. Yesterday, it was the Sunday Herald having a go, with the headline: "Chirac told: halt France's decline or forget the EU".

This paper reported on Tuesday's "mammoth demonstrations" across France which had "brought out the usual cavalcades": Greying veterans of May 1968, legions of railwaymen, teachers and their students, union apparatchiks, civil servants of every grade, journalists, air-traffic controllers and museum staff: all marching beneath a colourful display of banners and balloons and to an ear- splitting din of firecrackers and foghorns.

Le manif, said the Herald, is a ritual in France, and the ritual of the day after – apart from clearing up the tons of debris – is assessing the numbers that took part and deciding whether or not the campaign has been a success. Assessments by tradition vary ludicrously. This time the unions said 150,000 people took part in the Paris protest; for the police it was 35,000.

Not that it mattered. By Friday morning the consensus had settled: the mass movement had exceeded the unions’ hopes. More than one million workers – including many, unusually, in the private sector – had downed tools. The government of President Jacques Chirac, commentators agreed, should be seriously rattled – and not just because the demonstrations took place at the same time the Olympic assessors were in town.

But for Chirac, and his long-suffering prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the banners that counted were elsewhere. They were proudly arrayed along a substantial section of the cortege – and though their message flew in the face of the official policy of the opposition socialists and most trade unions, nobody on the march seemed to mind. The words were: "Non à la constitution Européenne!"

The Sunday Times took up the story, showing a photograph of some of the banners – these read: "Pour moi, c’est NON". One banner had the additional words, "Une autre Europe est possible!", but on the others, it looked as if that slogan had been hacked off.

Under its headline, proclaiming: "Chirac tries to buy off the 'non' vote", The Times told us that Chirac had adopted the standard French reflex to the unrest: he had reached for the chequebook, undertaking to pay his bloated ranks of state employees and extra one percent salary increase.

But it was to Reuters that we had to turn to find out why Chirac had taken this action.

Apparently, a survey for the L'Express weekly news magazine had reported opposition to the constitution rising to 44 percent from 37 percent since January and, crucially, the "no" vote had most support among public sector staff, at 57 percent.

Pollster Jerome Sainte-Marie said "The more people vote on the merits of the treaty, and that alone, the more people vote 'yes'. Conversely, any link with the government's policies benefits the 'no' campaign". Hence the money flows to them who shout loudest.

But the last word, however, should go to Valery Giscard d'Estaing, father of the constitution. While his compatriots were out on the streets demonstrating, he was in Pennsylvania, telling 300 people at the National Constitution Center that he believed all 25 member states would ratify the constitution. "The builders of modern Europe are not building a nation. They are building a continent," he said.

So now we know.

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