France has voted against the new European Constitution? Why? What does this mean?
Although some analyzed the run up to the vote in terms of a reaction to America, the general interpretation I’m getting here in Europe is that the motivation for the vote wasn’t America; it was about France and Europe.
The electorate were very informed, with copies of the Constitution sent to every house and the issue discussed in the media for months. Both supporters of the Constitution and the victorious opposition claimed that their position would save French jobs, culture, and social welfare. In the end, ‘Non’ won with 55%.
The primary motivation seems to be the same as it usually is in any big vote: personal financial interest. There’s significant fear in Western Europe about the expansion of the EU. A widespread belief is that low-wage earners from the East will swarm over Western Europe taking jobs. The symbol of this fear in France is the mythical ‘Polish Plumber’.
There was also a segment of the ‘Non’ vote that opposed the constitution out of concern that the constitution would replace the protective economic system with an American-style, more competitive economic system. Interestingly, this desire to keep social welfare in place instead of less regulation is considered a reaction against Liberalism. Here, the welfare state is Conservative and stronger economic competition is Liberal, the opposite of how they are labeled in the United States.
A further level of financial concern is the fear that poor immigrants will bankrupt the social welfare system, costing French citizens the significant social safety net they enjoy.
A related concern was about losing the “French” character of the country in face of a rising tide of Muslim immigrants. That issue will likely be preeminent in the impending referendum in the Netherlands, too. Living in Hamburg and riding my bicycle around the city, I’ve seen several neighborhoods in which Arabic and Turkish are more common on storefronts than is German. Fear of these changes in previously homogeneous societies is a strong force.
Finally, some people used the referendum as a vote against the current government.
So, what’s the overall point? The French vote was a vote against change. France has high unemployment and is becoming less “French” all the time. Whatever the actual effect of the Constitution would have been, the people decided they didn’t want to risk the change.
What should America do? I don’t think there’s much we should do. I read that a Bush Administration official commented off the record that they would condemn the Constitution if they thought it would help it get passed by an anti-Bush electorate. Of course, a unified Europe would have some wonderful effects for America, some negative effects for America, and many unintended consequences with unknown effect. I think we just need to watch these events play out. Personally, I like the idea of a unified Europe. However, I don’t know if this Constitution itself was a good document. Maybe this will force a re-write that would result in a better union.
BTW, here’s an interesting map that shows which regions voted for and against the Constitution. Basically, Paris, Strasbourg, Lyon and Brittany voted in favor, and the rest voted against.