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Viewpoints

Do the French know why they’re saying “non”?

May 12, 2005—PARIS—In a highly scrutinized referendum on May 29, French voters will go to the polls to say “Oui” or “Non” to the European Union constitution. Opinion surveys conducted in March and April showed the “Non” vote ahead with 51 to 54 percent of respondents, while some new statistics from this month give the “Oui” supporters a narrow lead. But as one-third of voters are still undecided, advertising and exposure will prove crucial for both sides of the debate in the coming weeks.

So why might the French vote “Non,” and why is the international community so hot and bothered by the possibility of such an

Since the constitution must be ratified by all of the 25 member states, a “No” vote from one of the six founding members of the EU would not only be embarrassing, it would render the treaty dead and send Europe back to the drawing board. Many political experts believe that failure of the proposed constitution could have deeply divisive and harmful consequences for Europe.

Critics of the constitution—including members of the Socialist Party, the Communist party, students, certain unions on the left, and skeptical nationalists on the right—fear that “the constitution is too liberal, too ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and would not protect the French social model,” explained the BBC News in a recent related article.

It’s no secret that the French are increasingly fed up with President Jacques Chirac and his “center-right” government as unemployment rates rise to 10 percent, the prized 35-hour work week comes under fire, and the country has fallen into so much debt that, in the very near future, there will literally be no money left to maintain the socialist model implemented by François Mittérand during the economic boom of the ’80s.

Many French citizens see a “Non” vote as an expression of dissatisfaction with their current government, though they are not necessarily opposed to (or even sure of) what the constitution proposes. In fact, while two-thirds of participants in an April opinion poll described themselves as “poorly informed” on the actual content of the EU constitution, 7 in 10 of these respondents said they would vote against its ratification.

At the bus stop on Tuesday, I witnessed an interaction between a little girl and her mother that reminded me of the French dilemma.

“Non, non, non!!!” the child screamed with glee, bouncing up and down in her stroller.

“Sí! (“Yes,” but only in the context of “not no, yes!”)” her mother replied, laughing.

“Non!”

“Sí!”

“Tu sais meme pourquoi tu dis ‘non’? (Do you even know why you’re saying ‘no’?)”

“Non!” exclaimed the little girl, between giggles and squirms.

She was at that remarkable age between one and two years old when children decide, despite the fact that they have an ever-expanding vocabulary, that no is still the best word ever. Once they discover its complex inflections, taste the power it can wield over a hapless parent, and realize the ease with which it might be pronounced in almost any situation, there is usually no turning back.

The French, too, are notorious for their love of non. Political or social reforms, particularly those that tamper with tradition, are not typically well received, and the knee-jerk response is to say “non” to anything that poses a threat to the institution.

By rejecting the kind of modern glass and steel architecture with which New York City was raised towards the sky, Paris is visually frozen in the 1800s. The curved roofs and round chimneys, stone façades, and wrought-iron details have not changed, nor have the tiny sidewalks on narrow, impossibly illogical street configurations. These are the physical qualities that make Paris one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and their presence reminds residents and tourists alike that Paris will always be Paris.

In a similar vein, a “Non” vote on the EU constitution would not only say non to Jacques Chirac and his government, but also to certain assimilation into a European economic model that challenges the highly socialized French way of life.

Unlike a beautiful old bridge or a rusty but well-crafted streetlamp, a failing economic system should not be conserved just for the sake of tradition. As much as I have come to accept—and at times even take pleasure in—the perplexing French adherence to preservation over pragmatism, President Chirac and the “Yes” men may have a point. The country can no longer afford the status quo, so it may be time to consider another option.

To secure the “Oui,” Chirac must convince the French that a vote for Europe is not a vote against their revered way of life. He must remove his own agenda from the debate, explain what the Constitution does and does not regulate, and address how it will specifically benefit French interests. Though Chirac has repeatedly been asked why France should vote Yes the time has come to realize that a population so adept at saying non will require a better answer than “because I said so.”

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