- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 3, 2005

PARIS — The French are in a funk. Now, it is hard to imagine anyone being in a bad mood in the spring sunshine here with the broad Parisian alleys of chestnut trees in full bloom, and the city’s golden domes glittering splendidly. Yet, it true. In fact, the French are in such a sulk that they may just vote no on the European Union Constitution in the May 29 referendum — just to stick it to President Jacques Chirac and their other political leaders. It would be supremely ironic were this to happen.

The reason for all this bad temper is the French economy, which like the German economy is in a sad state. The two countries that consider themselves the heart of the European Union are not looking much like a driving force these days. In France, unemployment has crept above 10 percent; the economy is barely growing and hovers persistently on the edge of recession. Even the famous 35-hour French workweek is not putting a smile on people’s faces. While paychecks are not growing,the shorter work week gives everybody more free time to shop and spend. The end result, inevitably,is less money to go around.

What France clearly needs is a more flexible job market and lower social costs that would allow for more competition, more labor mobility and more job creation. But that’s not how the majority of French workers see it. They like their job security; according to opinion polls, 70 percent say that their ideal job would be as a civil servant, which offers a job for life. Here the state is still considered the source of all things good and bad. Therefore, the French tend to blame the general economic malaise mainly on politicians simply not doing their jobs well enough.

But they also blame the EU. In particular, resentment focuses on competition (a dirty word around here) from the new EU members in Eastern and Central Europe. As one conservative observer notes, “We used to be afraid of invading Warsaw Pact troops. Now we fear an invasion of Polish plumbers.”

Independent contractors from Poland and other points east are setting up shop in France and Germany, everything from plumbers to tile layers to butchers; they offer their services at half the cost of local workers. What will happen to the labor market if and when Turkey eventually joins the EU is enough to send French workers off looking for the pastis bottle.

The upshot is that France, the country that for almost half a century has been the driving force for European integration, may be the first to turn down Europe’s most ambitious step toward political integration yet — the EU Constitutional Treaty. Some 20 consecutive opinion polls in France have given “No” advocates a narrow lead. The French political elite, however, is clinging to the hope that as the referendum campaign goes into full swing, voters will think twice and pull out a “yes” in the last few weeks. Right now, the result is too close to call.

Other countries where popular referenda hang in the balance include the Netherlands, which is voting on June 1; Denmark, which is voting in August; and Great Britain, where a date presumably will be set after this week’s parliamentary election. Technically speaking, a single “no” could put an end to the Constitution. Particularly if a major country like France turned it down, its future would be uncertain at best.

For the French political elites, the thought of such a humiliating self-inflicted blow to French pride and prestige in Europe is devastating, and summons up deep-rooted anxieties. Would anyone ever listen to France in Europe again? Would the French farmers lose their privileged position within the Common Agricultural Policy? Would Germany stop looking to France for leadership? Would the United States ever take France seriously again if it could not presume it was acting on behalf of the rest of EU? Worst of all, would not France be a laughing stock?

To quote French President Jacques Chirac, this nightmare would mean that his country would “cease to exist politically.” Nonetheless, Mr. Chirac already has his fallback line worked out should the “worst” happen. It goes something like this: France has always said “yes” to European integration, and has therefore been taken for granted. But, so Mr. Chirac has said, “No one respects a woman if she says ‘yes’ every time.” As political arguments go, this is surely one with a distinctly French flavor.

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