France is no longer master of Europe, and the scramble for a "yes" vote is nearing hysteriaby Tim King / May 21, 2005 / Leave a comment
The question that most troubles French people about the 29th May referendum on the European constitution is whether it embodies the French vision of Europe. In the aftermath of the second world war, the French fifth republic and the new Europe were conceived simultaneously and along parallel lines. France, reconstructing its own political and administrative institutions, imagined and created with the same breath what became Europe’s. France dominated the content as well as the form of European politics. “The major initiatives,” as Larry Siedentop has written in Democracy in Europe (2002), “from Schuman’s plan for a coal and steel community, through the common agricultural policy to the single currency—have been French and have served French interests… French and European interests have become categorically fused.” This has meant that whereas a British prime minister faced with a European project he or she does not like might look for an opt-out, the French president picks up the phone and tells the president of the commission that the proposed legislation is “unacceptable” to France. Jacques Chirac did just this over the stability pact and again in March over the Frits Bolkestein services directive.
But the French realise—many of them with regret—that such behaviour is now the exception. Enlargement, the re-emergence of British power, the spread of the English language and the strength of liberal market thinking in Brussels have eroded French hegemony. The Franco-German stand against the Iraq war was impressive in its way, but in the past one would have expected most other EU states to follow their lead. In retrospect it may be seen as the end of an era rather than the beginning. A year later, Franco-Germany could not impose its candidate, Guy Verhofstadt, as president of the commission.
But for many in France, the realities of waning influence have not yet sunk in: Europe is still written in French, as campaign leaders remind them daily. The current battle cry, “modèle social européen,” illustrates how deeply France and Europe are still fused in the French mind. The French see the social model as Europe’s landmark, the antidote to free-market savagery. It has become the pivot of the referendum campaigns. The difference between a “yes” and a “no” vote depends largely on whether you believe the constitution will enhance the social model or destroy it. What the rhetoric wrongly assumes, however, is that there is some European social model to enhance…