- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 1, 2005

The French vote Sunday on the EU constitution is a truly historic event. What happened in France has overshadowed everything else. French President Jacques Chirac’s great vision — opponents called it a delusion — was for the nations of Europe to join together in a United States of Europe which would rival our own country economically and even militarily.

In part of M. Chirac’s vision, this powerful European Union would be dominated by France and Germany. Not surprisingly, that part of the vision met with serious opposition from other countries and compromises were forced when a draft constitution was prepared. Under the ground rules to move forward with this enhanced European Union, the constitution must be approved by all 25 members in order to take effect. Ratification will take place in member countries this spring.

In the weeks before the vote in France, M. Chirac pulled out all the stops to obtain a “yes” vote from the people. Acting as if this was a vote on him personally, he campaigned long and hard with speeches on national television and around the country. Government ministers were ordered to do the same and were barred from leaving the country. M. Chirac lined up support from the leading French newspapers.

Notwithstanding all of this effort, the French populace handed M. Chirac a humiliating defeat, voting “no” by 57 percent to 43 percent. The constitution now lies in tatters. It is unclear if even the current loose political union of the EU will survive. For sure, Washington need not fear a rival in Europe.

There are a number of factors which contributed to this result. To begin with, there is widespread discontent with the government’s social and economic policies. Unemployment is at 10 percent, being pushed up by corporate relocations. Even among those employed, spending power has been eroding.

The EU constitution was viewed as greatly exacerbating this situation. The long and cumbersome document, 498 articles after all the compromises were included, was deemed by the French people to threaten their health and other benefits. At the same time, under the constitution, cone-headed bureaucrats in Brussels would be able to impose huge economic costs on the already sagging French economy in order to achieve uniformity among member states.

As we’ve seen repeatedly in American elections, economic fear — the concern about an uncertain future for voters and their families — can be a powerful factor.

Here the economic fear had another component. There is a deep-seated apprehension among many French of political integration with the culturally dissimilar people of Eastern Europe and perhaps Turkey. The worry is that “those people will overrun us,” as hordes move westward in search of jobs and a better life. Having traveled in the Czech Republic and Hungary this week, the French have something to worry about. There are a lot of enterprising, personable people who may come to try and take their jobs.

On this issue, the fear isn’t simply that French jobs will be lost or that French farmers will lose their markets. Even more basic, France will no longer be French. A great homogenization will take place, moving all EU nations toward the least common denominator.

In this regard, M. Chirac and the other European leaders put the cart before the horse. In hindsight, they would have been better off seeking approval of the constitution among only the hardcore states of Western Europe. After that, they could have focused on expanding the European Union.

Along this same vein, even opening discussions with Turkey, a Muslim nation (although not promising the Turks membership), contributed to the negative vote. It plays to the deep-rooted apprehension and fear of Muslims in Western Europe, particularly after the Madrid train bombings and cruel assassination of Theo Van Gogh in Amsterdam.

At the same time, the French government never made an effective case for approval. It never convinced an overwhelming number of voters that their lives will be improved by full integration with 24 other nations.

Here is the ultimate irony. In addition to M. Chirac’s poor performance in this election, recently German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder suffered a sharp defeat in German provincial elections. Thus two opponents of the war in Iraq were rebuked by their people while President Bush and Tony Blair were both re-elected.

Allan Topol is a lawyer and the author of “Enemy Of My Enemy.”

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