France: Chirac TV appeal for “yes” vote fails to shift growing sentiment against European constitution

French President Jacques Chirac went on television last Thursday night in an attempt to reverse the flagging fortunes of his campaign for a “yes” vote in the referendum on the European constitution set for May 29. Chirac, who heads the conservative ruling coalition, and his allies in the Socialist Party are desperate to counteract the growing opposition to the constitution. The last fourteen opinion polls all give the campaign for a “no” vote a lead of 7 to 9 points.

However, it appears that Chirac’s performance was unconvincing. New polls, published on Saturday, saw an increase in the “no” vote after Chirac’s intervention. The two leading polling institutes, CSA and IFOP, both rated the “no” vote at 56 percent, an increase of 1 percent in the case of CSA and 3 percent in IFOP polls. Only 44 percent of those questioned said that they would vote for the constitution.

The chat show format of the TV event, which was planned by Chirac’s daughter, Claude, in concert with the heads of the private channel TF1, had already led to controversy, because the 83 invited young people had been closely vetted. Nevertheless, the show turned into a debacle, even in the eyes of some of Chirac’s closest supporters.

The president seemed unable to answer or even understand the social and political concerns voiced by the young people present. Although intended as a “dialogue,” Chirac’s explanations in favor of a “yes” vote became a browbeating monologue about the serious consequences if the “no” camp prevailed. While most of the questions centered on the impact of the European constitution on social and democratic rights, Chirac pontificated about the might of France in the world.

If the constitution were rejected, France would be “considerably weakened,” he said. It would be “the black sheep” of Europe, “which has blocked everything.” Chirac went on to declare that in voting down the European constitution, “You won’t settle any problems, but you will considerably weaken France’s voice and the capacity of France to defend its interests.”

In response to several questions about the liberal (in the sense of “free market”) nature of the treaty, the president repeatedly invoked the deceased pope’s slogan: “Do not fear.” While acknowledging that “globalization, sustained by an ultra-liberal current, worries French people,” he argued, “Europe must be strong and organized to oppose such an evolution... Only our political power at the heart of Europe allows us to defend our interests.”

His defense of a strong Europe was clearly directed against other nations. Concerning China, he said, “the sudden and unacceptable invasion” of the European market by Chinese textiles would be subject to safety clauses due to be announced by the European Union (EU) shortly. As for Turkey’s desire to join the EU, opposition to which has become a focal point of the campaign of the extreme right for a “no” vote in the referendum campaign, Chirac said he considered “the values, the way of life, the functioning of Turkey” to be “incompatible with our values.”

In an attempt to strong-arm the electorate, Chirac made it clear that in the event of a “no” vote, the constitution would not be renegotiable. And if people thought the referendum could be used against him as a plebiscite on his government’s record, they would be disappointed. He would not resign.

Chirac’s euro-chauvinist ravings clearly failed to connect with his audience. According to Le Monde, many parliamentary delegates in Chirac’s party, the UMP (Union for a People’s Movement), were obliged to admit, after returning to their constituencies on Friday, that the head of the state had persuaded nobody. The daily paper quotes one of them as saying: “This group of youth was very representative of public opinion. They asked questions that everybody is asking, but the president did not concretely answer them. He did not keep his feet on the ground, but instead took to lecturing on international politics. People feel that they are not being heard.”

Although the young invited audience had been given a copy of the constitution, a large majority confessed that it was unreadable and incomprehensible. How could people be expected decide on the basis of reading a 480-page treaty? Why wasn’t it possible to have a 20-odd-page constitution, as in France or the US?

Thursday’s TV event underscored that the growing opposition to the European constitution is fuelled by democratic and social concerns. While right-wing parties, like Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front, Charles Pasqua’s Rassemblement pour la France, and sections of Chirac’s governing UMP itself, oppose the constitution from a narrow chauvinist standpoint, the wider popular opposition is dominated by fear of the social effects of the “free market” policies associated with the constitution and their impact on democratic rights. The resistance to the economic policies of the government of Prime Minister Jean Pierre Raffarin, who was appointed by Chirac, and, above all, concern and anger over growing unemployment (already 20 percent among youth) and fear of a relocation of industry find their focus in the growing sentiment for a “no” vote in the referendum.

Under these conditions, Chirac is relying heavily on the official left parties in his campaign for a “yes” vote. Leading members of the French Socialist Party, as well as German Social Democrats and the head of the Greens in the European Parliament, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, are intensively campaigning on Chirac’s behalf. There is a striking parallel here to the second round of the 2002 presidential election, when the bulk of the campaign for Chirac was conducted by the left—in the name of defeating his challenger, Le Pen of the National Front.

In a TV debate on the referendum on the public channel F2, held on April 11, the “yes” camp featured leading Socialist Party member Pierre Moscovici (European affairs minister in the plural left government of Lionel Jospin in 1997), who asserted that the constitution was a compromise between a social and “liberal” Europe.

Moscovici lauded the constitution’s formulation calling for “a highly competitive social market economy ...for free and fair competition...which tends towards full employment and social progress,” and contrasted it with what he called a “monopoly.” There might not be enough of a social component in the document, he argued, but nevertheless, it represented progress. He cited the European Trade Union Confederation’s campaign for a “yes” vote as proof of the good intentions of those backing the constitutional treaty.

On the same platform, Jo Leinen, a member of the European Parliament from the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), sought to appease Marine Le Pen, the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen and de facto leader of the National Front, who argued for a “no” vote, claiming that the constitution placed the French nation in danger. Leinen stressed that the first article of the constitution preserved the nation’s identity, which was therefore not in “peril.”

His argument for a “yes” vote was identical to Chirac’s. A “no” vote, Leinen remarked, leads to a weakened Europe and a loss of time in the effort to measure up to the US and China. Moscovici repeated the same mantra. He claimed that a “no” vote would mean a weakened France and an “impotent” Europe.

Also present was Olivier Besancenot, the spokesman for the Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire (LCR), who called for a “no” vote.

In contrast to the 2002 presidential election, when virtually the entire “left” from the Socialist Party to the LCR united behind Chirac, there is now a considerable “left” camp opposing the European constitution. It extends from a minority in the Socialist Party (SP) and the Greens to the Citizen’s Movement of Jean-Pierre Chevènement (MRC), the Communist Party (CPF) and the LCR.

Simultaneous with Chirac’s TV appearance, these parties organized a joint meeting at the Zenith Hall in Paris, attracting 5,000 people. Jean-Luc Mélenchon (SP), Communist Party leader Marie-George Buffet, the Green Party’s Francine Bavay, Georges Sarre (MCR), Olivier Besancenot (LCR) and radical peasant leader José Bové shared the platform.

Most of theses parties and individuals are experienced props of the French bourgeois order. Successive Socialist Party-led governments under François Mitterrand and Lionel Jospin carried out attacks on the working class, paving the way for the conservative-right regime headed by Chirac. The main concern of these left parties and “far left” groups is to prevent the social resistance fuelling the opposition to the European constitution from assuming an independent working class form, thereby threatening bourgeois rule in France.

For the MCR, which evolved out of the so-called “sovereignist” wing of the Socialist Party, the defense of the sovereignty of the French state has priority over all other political questions. Similarly, the PCF has a long history of championing French nationalism. For a number of years it shared power in Socialist Party-led governments.

In order to keep control over the “no” camp, these parties have joined together, temporarily abandoning their political differences. At the Zenith Hall meeting, Mélenchon even regretted the absence of fellow party dissenters like Laurent Fabius, an ex-prime minister and notorious right-winger, even by the standards of the Socialist Party.

It was left to Besancenot to present this unprincipled and fundamentally reactionary alliance as the basis for a future left-wing party. A victory of the “no” camp on May 29, he claimed, would usher in a new relationship of forces to develop “a left that is 100 percent on the left.”

In fact, it would do nothing of the kind. The World Socialist Web Site calls for a “no” vote on the constitution, which represents the attempt of the most powerful corporate and financial interests in Europe to establish a new framework for the exploitation of the European working class and the promotion internationally of the imperialist interests of the major European powers.

However, our opposition is based on a socialist and internationalist perspective that is fundamentally opposed to all those forces, both on the right and on the left, that oppose the constitution from a nationalist standpoint, and seek to encourage illusions that the social interests and democratic rights of working people can be defended within the framework of the existing capitalist nation-state system. Our answer to the project of the European ruling elites for European integration on capitalist terms is the struggle to unite and mobilize the working class independently of all bourgeois governments and parties for a United Socialist States of Europe.

A “no” vote by itself will not achieve the crucial task facing the working class in all European countries—the need to break politically with the organizations tying it to the bourgeois order and fight for a revolutionary transformation of Europe from below, on the basis of a genuinely democratic and egalitarian, i.e., socialist, program.