Friday, April 15, 2005

No renegotiation

The most startling thing to come out of Chirac’s two-hour television extravaganza last night was his blunt, totally uncompromising assertion that, in the event that France voted "no" to the constitution, "European construction" would stop. "The argument that we could renegotiate (the treaty) is not a serious one," he said.

This was his great "counterattack", according to the front-page headline of Thursday's Le Soir, or "Chirac's big test," according to Le Figaro, but it was already being dismissed well in advance by a galaxy of critics, not least Jacques Séguéla, the image-making guru who advised the late President Mitterrand.

He joined the media from across the political spectrum yesterday in criticising Chirac for choosing a soft broadcast format hosted by chat-show presenters, in front of a hand-picked audience of 83 "young people", while refusing a debate with politicians or serious interviewers.

Séguéla said that Chirac was making a mistake by turning the constitution into entertainment. "More than 86 percent of the French have not read the constitution and will not read it," he said. "They want to be told seriously and sincerely what is in it and not served-up showbusiness."

Comparisons were made with Mitterrand who, facing a similar challenge in 1992, changed many voters' minds in a head-on debate with the leading conservative opponent of the Maastricht treaty. Chirac, with an approval rating that has sagged below 45 percent after ten years in his job, is unlikely to repeat the trick.

So unpopular is he now that Communist leader George-Marie Buffet was openly saying that Chirac's support for the constitution could backfire. "I think that men and women on the left who want to fight the policy of power will want even more to say 'no' to this policy," Buffet declared, echoing the sentiment of Le Pen who recently pronounced that he was "waiting for Jacques Chirac to finish off a faltering 'yes' vote by openly supporting it."

With hundreds of thousands of French people having taken to the streets and staged strikes in recent weeks to protest against the government's planned labour market reforms and high unemployment - at a 5-year high of 10.1 percent – l’escroc is indeed going to be hard put to it to turn the tide, with now fifteen straight polls showing a majority against the constitution, but that didn't stop him trying.

He warned that a "no" vote would make France the "black sheep" of the European Union, proclaiming that "our political power alone, within Europe, allows us to defend our interests."

"If tomorrow we were to vote no, we would no longer have any power," he said, clearly attempting to invoke the "nuclear option". "The reality is that you would have 24 countries that voted yes and then the black sheep that blocked everything", he said. "France would be considerably weakened… France would cease to exist politically."

His main theme, however, was that France needed protection from "globalisation driven by an ultra-liberal [free-market] trend", and "organisation" to survive in "a world of major powers, current powers, such as the US and also the emerging powers, which are considerable - China, India, and in the future, Brazil and South America, Russia - big powers which naturally intend or wish to impose their will."

"We cannot stand against these powers on an individual basis," Chirac said. "France cannot do this - and if we want to think this out and react to it, we need organisation. Europe must be strong and well-organised to stand against this trend."

The alternative was "letting things drift… a solution leading to the kind of Europe which is driven by the ultra-liberal current, an Anglo-Saxon, Atlanticist kind of Europe. This is not the kind of Europe we want."

Rejecting the constitution, said Chirac, would "not solve any problem... You will considerably weaken France's voice and therefore our capacity to defend our interests. It's what I call the boomerang effect...", he declared.

However, according to The Times, it may be all too late. There is a weariness with the president and his administration, which is a factor in the mood of rejection sweeping the country, along with a general sense that France is suffering from a chronic economic crisis.

But many people are now coming to believe there will be no crisis if the constitution is rejected. The Times articulates this view. Contrary to the dire warnings of Jacques Delors, who said yesterday that "a rejection would lead to a political earthquake in France," it is, says The Times, becoming easier by the month to see how the EU might make do without the passage of the constitution.

Jan Rokita, Poland's centre-right opposition leader, who hopes to become prime minister in elections this year, is of that school. Arguing that the constitution was not needed, he said: "Europe can integrate wonderfully without the treaty, and it can just as easily descend into crisis with it as without it."

One needs to be a little careful here, as a "non" vote in France is not a foregone conclusion, but more and more, it is looking like Blair – if he is re-elected - is off the hook. The chances of a UK referendum are receding fast. Instead, we might get just what Chirac is worried about - a period of drift.

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