In the shadow of the last blast furnace in Hayange, a declining French steel town near the border with Luxembourg and Germany, union and communist activists gathered in the local sports hall one recent night to plot their campaign against the proposed European Union constitution. They had put up posters in the windows of the drab stucco building advocating a europe of peace, but as in thousands of similar meetings throughout France over the past few months the spirit was more of revolution. For people like Jacques Maréchal, who teaches at a drug-abuse center and organized the meeting, the constitution is a direct threat to France's cherished traditions of social solidarity, workers' rights and welfare provision. He thinks it falls uniquely to him and his compatriots to bring the document down in this Sunday's referendum. "We didn't wait for the others in 1789 and we shouldn't now," says Maréchal, 42, lean, friendly and intense. "A French non could unleash liberating energy for all Europeans. Through this wall of money, we will make a passage for a society that's more for the people."
It's a long way from the grit of Hayange to the gilt of the Elysée Palace in Paris, yet President Jacques Chirac too has invoked the French Revolution to sell the constitution to his countrymen, though, not to tear it down. The document is "a daughter of 1789," he told an audience of 6.5 million during a televised pitch from the tapestry-bedecked antechamber of his Elysée office earlier this month, and they should rally behind it because "the French, more than others, have good reason to be proud that these values will from now on be the general rule [in Europe]."
It's ironic, maybe even quaint, that people on both sides of the constitutional debate should cite the French Revolution to bolster their case. Back in 1789, France was in the vanguard of a democratic movement that swept away the old order across the Continent. But these days, France is more likely to be bringing up the rear rather than leading the charge for radical change. The process of European integration was launched as a fundamentally French project, and for most of the last 50 years French personalities, ideas and influence dominated it. But now, the French are seen by many not as a model nation but an obstacle to reform. France has led the fight to preserve the E.U.'s bloated and inequitable agricultural subsidies, penalize Central Europe's embrace of low corporate taxes, and loosen the reins on deficit spending. Having been accustomed to an E.U. that in many ways was France writ large, the country is struggling to adapt to a much larger union in which Paris has a harder time calling the shots.
Instead of embracing change with the vigor and élan that has been their historical trademark, many French seem afraid and petulant as they cling to a heroic image of their country that no longer matches reality. "There's no trust in the future, no capacity for risk taking," says Bernard Spitz, founder of the center-left think tank In Real Time and co-editor of a 2004 compendium of proposed reforms entitled State of Urgency. "The French just aren't happy about the way the world turns right now, and the referendum gives them a chance to say no to many things: to Turkey in the E.U., to Chirac, to enlargement, to offshoring of jobs, to globalization."
Many French might think that by rejecting the constitution they can make all these things just go away. It won't happen. For the past 20 years, France has suffered from chronic unemployment, currently at 10.2%. While the economy grew 2.5% last year against an E.U. average of 2.4% that still hasn't generated enough jobs. For a generation, budget deficits have become almost as common as labor strikes. And French productivity per employee increased at just half the rate of the rest of the world between 1995 and 2003, according to a report released last week by the Conference Board, a business-oriented research institute in New York City. If the French want to keep their social model intact, they'll have to figure out a way to pay for it. "The perception people have of the future Will our children's lives be better or worse than ours? is at a low," says Frenchman Pascal Lamy, the former European Trade Commissioner who's expected to take over as president of the World Trade Organization (wto) later this year. "People feel they have to work more to make less." It's largely that sense of malaise that could drive a majority of French voters to scupper the European constitution on Sunday, bringing the E.U.'s drive toward "ever closer union" to a grinding halt.
The debate has centered mainly on whether the constitution is or isn't a kind of Trojan horse by which the dreaded "Anglo-Saxon liberalism" i.e., unfettered free-market capitalism will be given free rein in France, gnawing at such hard-won social gains as the 35-hour workweek, well-funded public services and strong protection against layoffs. On the far left, Marie-George Buffet, national secretary of the French Communist Party, said that bringing the constitution down "will be an extraordinary signal to all the world's peoples that the wto and Bush will no longer reign as their masters." On the far right,
National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen has said a yes vote would be tantamount to "capitulation." Laurent Fabius, a former Socialist Prime Minister who has thrown in his lot with the no camp, says the constitution would lead to "a diluted Europe with ever more member states, ever lower wages and benefits and an ever weaker capacity for decision making."
The controversy has transported the French: guides to the constitution have become best sellers, radio discussions drone on ad nauseum about the pros and cons of the document, and a poll last week revealed that 83% of French people say they've discussed the referendum at home or at work this month. The yes and no sides have been seesawing in the polls, but surveys released last week put no on top at 53%. The vote could still go either way.