PARIS For historians of the 21st century, May 29, 2005, could become a highly symbolic turning point. If the French vote “no” to the referendum on Europe’s constitutional treaty – the likely result, if the latest polls are correct – they will, unwillingly and unknowingly, make sure that this becomes the “Asian century.”
The European Union would probably become a Magna Helvetia – a big Switzerland – or a museum of high and old culture and the good life. For a “no” vote will not be followed by a new departure for the Union, but by a combination of disarray and confusion, if not paralysis.
In their combination of fear and narcissism, French voters are expressing everything that is going wrong in Europe – or at least, in old Continental Europe. In the new members of the Union, like Poland and the Baltic Republics, one finds enthusiasm and the kind of energy evident in Asia: an appetite for success and a hunger for results. In France, on the other hand, a self-defeating, unrealistic, messianic search is going on for “another Europe,” in an anachronistic attempt to cling to a reassuring past that cannot be recreated.
At a time when the pace of history seems to be accelerating, particularly in Asia, a French “no” vote would lead the European Union to sit by and watch as the train of history leaves the station without it.
Such a demise would be the indirect result of the interaction in France of three factors.
The first is the alienation of a majority of the French from the cause of Europe. In the past, for the French, Europe was a way of pursuing national ambition through other means, of prolonging past glory, whereas for the Germans it represented a way to break from their past. Europe was also a way to impose badly needed structural reforms on reluctant French citizens in the name of the Union.
Today, by contrast, after last year’s EU enlargement, France no longer sees itself as the head of the European family. The French feel ill at ease sitting at a table with the distant and largely unknown cousins who have recently joined the club. Europeanization is no longer seen as the path to modernity but as a threat by all those who make the mistake of equating Europeanization with globalization, and blaming Europe’s enlargement for the transfer of jobs.
If the French tend to see Europe in such a dark and defensive way – and this is the second factor helping the No camp – it is because in recent political history they have never been so terribly morose and pessimistic about themselves, their present performance and their future opportunities.
A high level of long-term unemployment affecting the young in particular has acted as a cancer on France’s social structure. In the land of liberty, equality and fraternity, the demand for equality has canceled any sense of fraternity, as was illustrated by the recent quarrel over the suppression of a public holiday in order to finance the medical and social costs of caring for elderly people. And liberty has become, above all, the liberty to take to the streets to block any reform and to defend the interests of one’s own sector.
The third aggravating factor is the political elite itself. The divorce between society and the political class has been encouraged by the weakness of France’s leadership. Lacking inspiration and conviction, “they” may have failed in their duty to guide and educate the citizens of France about the cause of Europe.
The weakness of France’s leaders has been exploited by demagogues and political opportunists who have managed to stir fears and frustrations. The “no” camp has surfed a wave of negative emotion and arguments that are often irrational.
A victory by the “yes” camp would hardly bring about the rebirth of an energetic, dynamic and self-confident Europe, but it would at least prevent Europe falling, as France has, into a narcissistic identity crisis.
Today, for reasons of demography and moral energy, the future lies more with Asia than with Europe. But that is no reason to turn away from the European project. The future belongs, like victory, to those who desire it most, not to those who are doing their best to defeat themselves.
(Dominique Moïsi is a senior adviser at IFRI, the French Institute of International Relations.)