The French disconnection

June 01, 2005

THE FRENCH are fed up. The world has been changing fast, and not in a way that thrills everyone living in it. To take just one example, the forces that shut down the GM plant on Broening Highway are battering - or will be battering - at the gates of the Renault factory in Le Mans. Everybody knows that, and though most people know that change is bound to occur, the uneasiness in France (and in Europe and in the rest of the developed world) is deeply rooted in the feeling that ordinary people (call them voters) no longer have much say in how things happen.

So the French voted "no" on a constitution for Europe. Today, the Dutch are expected to do the same. Deciding to cast off some of the peculiar characteristics that make France French, or the Netherlands Dutch, is one thing - but to do so indirectly, by approving a 400-some page legal document that gives more power to an unelected commission in Brussels just because the current crop of political leaders in your own country is all for it, suggests that it's the political leadership and not the voters who are out of touch.

Since the fall of communism, democracy throughout the West has been going through an interestingly troubled time. People everywhere are sick of politicians and hostile toward politics itself. Party politics gets nastier all the time, but people get no greater sense of control over the things that matter. This breeds cynicism, but in truth, cynicism serves officeholders well because it lowers expectations and turnout among sensible people. The French vote could be thought of, then, as a triumph of anti-cynicism. Voters were willing to go to the polls and say, "No. Enough."

And how did Jacques Chirac, the French president, respond? Yesterday, he appointed as prime minister a man who has never been elected to office. Could the disconnect get any more complete?

Yes, of course it could. Europe, after all, is the continent that gave the world enough wars and ideologies to last a millennium or more. A crisis over the shape of the future European Union is not a cataclysm. In time, people will probably come to office who understand what the rejection of the treaty is all about, and fashion an alternative. That, in fact, would be democracy in action.

Many of the French and Dutch "no" voters are afraid that the constitution as proposed would force a free-market, globalized economy and virtually unlimited immigration upon their countries. They're afraid of the world. But the popular image of globalization contains the disturbing thought that once its forces are unleashed, no one will be precisely in charge - just "the market." The promoters of globalization are telling people that they must accept its coming because it is both inevitable and, in the long run, beneficial. For those in the top echelons of politics and business, this is undoubtedly true. But millions of French voters outside the favored arrondissements of Paris aren't so sure. The French have sounded a warning - and it's one that reverberates far beyond the borders of Europe.

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