The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- The French referendum is an assertion of nationalist sentiment

In the last week of May, as the French were preparing to vote on the new European constitution, I was travelling through two countries connected most intimately with France. Reading the newspapers, and talking to a cross-section of scholars, I got a privileged peep into what that historic referendum signified, for the idea of France and for the idea of Europe itself.

I began in England, a country that is separated from France only by a few miles of sea. In the 19th century, the two nations fought bitter wars against each other; in the 20th, they were uneasy allies in more bitter wars still against the common enemy, Germany. The British national spirit was forged in opposition to the French. As Linda Colley has written, 'imagining the French as their vile opposites became a way for Britons to contrive for themselves a converse and flattering identity'. The British claimed that the French clad themselves in wooden shoes while they wore fine leather ones. The British played cricket, a subtle game quite beyond the reach of the French. And, most significant of all, the British rejected the pope in Rome, while the French cravenly followed him.

Of late, the British have become more generous, allowing that the French make better food and more gorgeous women. Even the French countryside is now held to be as beautiful as the British ' to judge only by the number of houses in Provence paid for by cheques drawn on London banks. As with its relations with India and the United States of America, England's relationship with France is composed equally of enchantment and distaste ' albeit in a more intense form still.

Naturally, the run-up to the French vote was followed in the British press with an obsessive fascination. I was particularly struck by a two-page spread in the Times that examined the responses to the EU constitution from the edges of the political spectrum. The extreme right was represented by Jean-Marie Le Pen, whose National Front based its opposition on the enlargement of the EU. In urging his followers to vote against the constitution, Le Pen spoke against the backdrop of banners asking the French to say no to a 'Muslim Europe' ' this a reference to Turkey's application for admission to the EU.

Le Pen is a thick-set, grim and humourless old man ' a sort of French L.K. Advani, we might say. His counterpart on the left is altogether more charismatic, if less well known in India. This is Jos' Bov', a farmer's leader, who shot into fame when he ran his tractor into a McDonald's outlet that had just opened in his native village. Bov' is a plump man who sports a large moustache ' though I would not go so far as to call him a French Veerappan. He stands for the autonomy and dignity of the farmer and against the global market. In asking his followers to vote against the EU constitution, he was, he said, taking a stand against 'Anglo-Saxon liberalism'. Bov' was joined by the vigorous Trotskyite movement in France, likewise opposed to the free market and to the creeping ' some might say galloping ' Americanization of French society.

Polls in France revealed that 98 per cent of communist voters would vote against the EU constitution, along with 94 per cent of the non-communist left and 93 per cent of National Front voters. The press in London affected surprise at this coming together of left and right. The British prefer pragmatic, middle-of-the-road politicians anyway. The extremist sects in their politics ' the Socialist Workers Party on the left and the British National Party on the right ' have little influence, and would perhaps never vote on the same side. But as an Indian, I did not find the congruence so surprising. Right-wing radicals in France, as in India, base their politics on a single point agenda ' keep out the Foreigner. Left-wing radicals are more discriminating ' they seek only to keep out foreign goods. The xenophobia of Le Pen, like that of the RSS ideologues, is predominantly cultural. The xenophobia of Bov', like that of the CPI(M) intellectuals, is chiefly economic.

From Britain I moved on to Spain, a country that shares a border with France, and which is bound to it by ties of history, economics and religion. Here I found a man who had actually read the EU constitution ' the distinguished Catalan social scientist, J. Martinez Alier. The document is 400 pages long, and written in bureaucratic jargon ' for the referendum on which the French voted it had been boiled down to 16 short points. Neither pr'cis nor full document referred to the enlargement of the EU. Nor was further economic integration actively pushed for here. Rather, the new constitution called for common action on such questions as human rights, asylum-seekers and immigration, for greater rights for the European parliament, and for a diminution of the powers of the Brussels bureaucracy. Its avowal of a common Europe was more political than economic or cultural ' for example, it advocated that there should be a European foreign minister to more effectively articulate a single European foreign policy. Its avowal of common Europe was more political than economic or cultural ' for example, it advocated that there should be a European foreign minister, to more effectively articulate a single European foreign policy.

Now in his sixties, Martinez Alier knows France very well indeed. He speaks fluent French, has lived for long periods in France, and had his first books published in 'migr' editions in Paris at a time when Spain itself was a dictatorship. When news of the French vote reached us, he was disappointed that the 'Nons' had carried the day. For his view of Europe is deeply coloured by his understanding of modern European history. For the 19th century, and the first half of the 20th, witnessed in full force the brutal consequences of German, French, British, Russian and assorted smaller nationalisms. Other forms of political belonging, such as sub-nationalism and supra-nationalism, are, he believes, more likely to be productive of harmony rather than violence. (Martinez Alier is himself Catalan before he is European, and European before he is Spanish.) In the past, I had heard him say that the present generation of Germans were the best, or the least nationalistic, since the generation that made the revolutions of 1848. Perhaps he now thinks that the present generation of Frenchmen is the worst, or most jingoistic, since the end of the World War II. Their recent vote is certainly at odds with their own past behaviour ' with the French being one of the original six countries that created the European Economic Community, with the fact that the EU, as we now know it, is, above all, the work of two Frenchmen, Jean Monnet and Jacques Delors.

Martinez Alier thinks that as a transcendence of destructive nationalisms, the EU is a good thing ' and it would be even better if it gave more powers to the regions. Like him, the younger Spanish intellectuals I met were strongly in favour of the European idea. They felt that a more unified Europe would, among other things, be a counterweight to a unilateralist and arrogant US.

Nine countries had already endorsed the EU constitution ' among them Spain and Germany. Now France's rejection, followed soon after by that of the Dutch, has placed the constitution in jeopardy. These twin votes have also let the British prime minister, Tony Blair, off the hook ' no longer need he hold a referendum where his own pro-European sentiments would most likely be overthrown by the insularity of the majority. Now Blair can safely blame the French for derailing the process.

The French vote has been viewed as a vote against economic liberalization ' and, as such, deplored by free-market commentators and cheered by left-wing ones. It is more useful to interpret it, as Martinez Alier does, as a political statement, as an assertion of nationalist sentiment against the further strengthening of a transnational institution. The shelving of the European constitution does not mean the end of the EU of course. But it is certainly a setback.

It is noteworthy that among those who welcomed the French result were sections of the American elite. The New York Times ran an article reporting, with some glee, how the uncertainty caused by the referendum had allowed the dollar to make steady gains against the euro. And a commentator in the International Herald Tribune crowed that the negative vote, by causing a serious division within the countries of the Continent, had 'eroded the European mystique', and punctured the EU's 'self-portrayal (of itself) as the Righteous Power, its exalted but hollow pretensions to project to the world a will and a strength that is not yet and may never be its own.' A will and a strength, we may infer, that must always be the exclusive preserve of the US. Were I a conspiracy theorist, I might begin to suspect Le Pen and Bov' of being on the payroll of the Central Intelligence Agency.

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