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Why French voters said...
"Non" to a bosses' Europe

June 3, 2005 | Page 5

EUROPE'S POLITICIANS and business executives were reeling May 29 after French voters resoundingly rejected the proposed European constitution in a referendum vote.

The draft constitution--whose writing was overseen by a former French president, Valéry Giscard D'Estaing--would centralize power in the Brussels-based bureaucracy of the European Union (EU), giving it greater power over the EU's 25 member countries. While "vote yes" propaganda hailed the constitution as a path to economic growth, it in fact is designed to lock in free-market, pro-business policies known as neoliberalism, while continuing to shred the European welfare state.

The defeat of the constitution is a blow to French President Jacques Chirac and the conservative government led by Chirac's ally, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin. Chirac's popularity was already sinking due to budget cuts and the rollback of pro-worker reforms such as the 35-hour workweek.

Yet the "no" vote also produced a crisis for France's Socialist Party, which called for a "yes" vote. While running the government under former Prime Minister Lionel Jospin from 1997 to 2001, the Socialists carried out more privatizations of state-owned firms that any government in French history.

On the "no" side, there were two camps--the far right, headed by neo-Nazi Jean-Marie Le Pen, and the left, which included Trotskyist groups, the French Communist Party (even though it participated in the last Socialist-led government), a small left-populist nationalist party and a handful of maverick Socialist Party politicians.

The rejection in France--and a predicted defeat for the constitution in a referendum in the Netherlands as Socialist Worker went to press--are signs of a new round of resistance to neoliberalism, not only in France but across Europe. GUSTAVO BUSTER is a member of the Spanish socialist group Espacio Alternativo and a supporter of the socialist Fourth International. He talked to SW's LEE SUSTAR about the meaning of the French "no."

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THE FAR left and far right both campaigned for a "no" vote. Which can claim victory for the rejection of the EU constitution in France?

EVERYBODY IN the "no" camp will claim victory. It's not possible to know exactly what the contribution from each of the forces was. We have the opinions polls, which tell us that the far right vote in France gets about 18 percent support, which is quite close to the 16.6 percent of the vote they got in the regional elections in 2004.

But that isn't the right question. The important thing is why people voted for the "no" massively, against the two mainstream parties. The answer is that they did it to protest the neoliberal and conservative policies of the Raffarin government, which they identified correctly as the French version of a neoliberal agenda that the EU Constitutional Treaty tries to convert into law. The "no" vote is a vote against neoliberalism.

For the far right, the alternative to the crises of neoliberal policies is a utopian return to the imaginary days of French "petit-gloire," before the introduction of the euro and the emigration of workers from North Africa.

On the left--which is the main component of the French "no" vote, at least two-thirds of it--there is a debate going on about what the alternative should be. One side wants a return to the days of the "plural left" and the Jospin government of the Socialist Party, Communist Party and Greens, which also applied neoliberal policies. The other wants a true progressive and social alternative that will begin a break with the logic of neoliberalism.

The kernel of this debate is the split within the Socialist Party around the question of the Constitutional Treaty. To go back to the "plural left" will mean that the social-liberal leadership of the Socialist Party is able to recover from this defeat and regain control over all those voters who have now said "no."

But many things are against the social-liberals in the SP. To start with, there has been strong workers' resistance since the general strike of 1995, which has grown especially in the last two years and extended from the public to the private sector of the economy. This struggle needs a true political alternative--on the basis of unity in this popular movement of resistance, which encompasses the left of the Socialist Party, the Communist Party and the revolutionary left.

It's essential to apply--in France and in all of Europe--a united front strategy against neoliberal policies and base a new political alternative on it. That's the challenge of the victory of the "no."

WHAT IS the overall political context for this referendum defeat and for the recent election setbacks suffered by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's Social Democratic Party (SPD)?

THERE'S A global and European context for the "no" vote. The neocon project of the Bush administration is entangled in the sands of Iraq for the moment. That gave a window of opportunity to the "old Europe" of Chirac and Schröder to try to sell their neoliberal project of Europe disguised as a multilateral and more "human" form of capitalism. They hoped to use the strong protest movement in all Europe against the Iraq war as the justification for their own European brand of neoliberalism.

But the social consequences of neoliberal policies applied under instructions from the Brussels European Commission have found a very strong resistance in all the countries that joined the Euro. We have seen general strikes in France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece and Holland, and strong sectoral strikes in Germany, Belgium and Denmark. The myth of a "European model" more socially progressive than the ones in place in the U.S. or Japan is melting.

There are big changes in European governments that reflect the popular change of mood. But this change of political consciousness is slow because there is no clear alternative--I mean a real and practical alternative in the here and now, not a propagandistic one.

The changes start inside and around the big traditional organizations. That is why it is so important to see the division in the French Socialist Party, and the small split in the German SPD. Revolutionary organizations are small and can gain influence when they can apply united front tactics. But they have grown in the best of cases by the hundreds, and have been able for first time to elect members of parliament in Britain, Portugal and the European Parliament.

We are at a transitional moment. The resistance has accumulated enough anger to become a political "veto" factor. But it does not yet have its own positive alternative. This will not fall from the heavens, by chanting a propagandist mantra. It has to be built through collective, united social experience, one step after another.

If we are not able to produce in each European state and at the EU level a concrete and realistic alternative through a program for action against neo-liberalism, this left turn will be reabsorbed into new experiences of the "plural left" and will be defeated. We may have to go through more than one of these cycles before there is enough collective social experience to overcome the political weakness. But our task is to "shorten" these painful cycles and find a way to develop--from an organizational and political point of view, in the left parties and the trade unions--a socialist alternative.

YOU HAVE written about how the EU constitution is aimed at consolidating and advancing neoliberalism. How will the employers and European governments react to the "no" in France?

HAPPILY, I can say that this "no" is a big defeat for them. The Constitutional Treaty was the treaty of the French employers association and their European partners. The big objective of the EU constitution was to legitimize their neoliberal policies through a pseudo-democratic ratification process. Once they had become law, Giscard--the putative father of the text--had promised that it could not be changed legally for 50 years!

All that is over. Nobody can pretend now that EU neoliberal policies, which have been contested in the streets since 1995, have any popular democratic consensus behind them. Of course, the EU will continue to operate. The euro has become a reality, and the European Commission issues all kind of regulations daily. But the neoliberal project for building a unified Europe has suffered a terrible blow. A window of opportunity has opened now for a left, progressive project for building a unified Europe.

The EU governments are already plotting a Plan B. Poor Giscard has proposed to put the Treaty back to a vote in France, and in Holland if it's also rejected there. That's the so-called "Irish solution," because when the Irish said "no" to the Niza Treaty, they were promised all kind of subsidies until there was enough abstentionism to pass the treaty a second time. There is no political space for that kind of trick now.

Another proposal is to "reform" the Niza Treaty by adding to it the Constitutional Treaty's most important chapters (from the point of view of the European oligarchy) and get it ratified not by referendum votes in the member states, but by the European and national parliaments.

The problem is that this will open the Pandora's box of long negotiations in which national interests--now not only of the euro group of 15 countries, but of all 25 member states, including those in central Europe--will come to the fore. To the split between "old" and "new" Europe from the Iraq war debate, you will have to add the split between "poor" Europe and "not so rich any longer" Europe.

All this is happening in the worst of all possible moments, with the European economy going into recession and discussions of the European budget for 2007 to 2013, when all the subsidies have to be redistributed.

There are 35,000 Euro-bureaucrats to imagine a solution for Plan B. And they are very imaginative. We will keep an eye on them, but the important thing is to produce our own Plan B.

I think we should propose that the European Party of the Left call a European Left Convention as soon as possible, with the participation of all parties, movements and trade unions that are against the EU constitution and neoliberal policies--including the left of the French Socialist Party and the split from the SPD, and of course, members of the European anti-capitalist left. We have to discuss adopting a common program of action against the neoliberal "Lisbon Agenda," for a social progressive European budget for 2007-2013 and the immediate resignation of the already corrupt new Barroso Commission.

Only in that way can we start building a social and progressive Europe. We have to call for a real European constitutional process, based on new elections to the European parliament. The new European Parliament would produce a new EU constitution, after an open and democratic debate, and put it to ratification in one single European referendum. Only in that way will we have a Europe of the citizens, not a Europe of the oligarchs.

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