France in turmoil over success of perfidious Albion
May 18, 2005
From Charles Bremner in Paris
Whether French voters approve or reject the European Constitution, their referendum campaign is serving to polish the image of another nation: Great Britain.
As opinion polls yesterday showed a swing back to a “no” majority before the vote on May 29, le royaume de Tony Blair was being cited as the model of everything that France both rejects and admires.
“Unlike Britain’s leaders, our left-wing politicians have lied for so long that the voters want to bite back and vote ‘no’,” a commentator on France Inter radio said yesterday.
Le Point, a conservative news magazine, proclaimed Britain the current winner of the historic duel between the rival neighbours. “Albion, for the moment, is causing us envy rather than pity,” it said. “Britain is displaying insolent economic health and British diplomacy is exerting its influence over a Europe of 25 members, shaped according to its wishes.”
Both comments reflect the way that Britain, and more widely the American-led “Anglo-saxon” world, are serving as the touchstone for both sides in the argument about whether France should sign up to the constitution that it in large part shaped, or send the European Union back to the drawing board.
The yes-no debate has boiled down to a central theme: the role of free-market capitalism, or what the French call liberalism. Does the constitution protect France from this “Anglo-Saxon” system, or does it condemn France to servitude in an EU that is merely a British-led trading zone?
Three polls in the past five days show the rejectionist vote rising from 50 to about 53 per cent. Credit is being given to the stance of Laurent Fabius, deputy leader of the Socialist party and a former Prime Minister, who has helped to make the “no” vote intellectually respectable.
The “yes” camp, which includes both President Chirac’s Government and the rest of the opposition leadership, says that the constitution is a French-designed bastion against the British system.
M Chirac, an erstwhile anti-European and past admirer of Margaret Thatcher, has recast himself as a defender of the Gallic state-dominated social model. He is calling liberalism the “communism of modern times” and is appealing to France to say “yes” to shore up the French welfare system.
In similar vein, the Socialist party posters urge: “Vote ‘yes’ for a social Europe.” The “no” camp, which is dominated by the Left but includes conservative nationalists and Jean-Marie Le Pen’s ultra-right National Front, depicts the constitution as an act of national suicide in which France will become a vassal to a British-led “Brussels empire”.
This “yes-no” argument is based on the recent Gallic view that Britain, for all its vulgar economic success, is a socially backward with high poverty, crime and sick public services. Mocking this cliché, Stéphane Denis, a columnist, wrote: “I admit that I have not understood whether Europe was supposed to be British already or we have to stop it becoming so. Of the two options, however, there is one thing we must not do: admire Great Britain.”
Since Mr Blair’s re-election, a new theme has emerged. Perhaps the British model, with its strong growth and unemployment less than half that of France, is desirable after all.
Nicolas Sarkozy, leader of M Chirac’s Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) and rival to the President, broke the taboo last Thursday in Paris at the biggest “yes” rally so far. “Of course, the Anglo-saxon vision has never been mine,” M Sarkozy reassured the audience. “We want a political, integrated Europe.” However, France was bottom of the class in employment and should stop imagining that it provided a model for Europe, he said.
In one of a stream of media articles praising British prosperity, le Figaro, a pro-Chirac daily, said: “This British miracle should serve us as an example, as long as we have the courage to cross the Channel and seek the answers to the anaemia [feebleness} of our economy.”
More surprisingly, left-wing media have been abandoning their antipathy to Mr Blair as a “phoney leftist”. Le Nouvel Observateur, weekly bible of the thinking classes, published a series of articles under the headline: Why are the British better than us? “The other side of the Channel is swinging while France is paralysed by a gloom that is spreading across the Continent,” it said.
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France in turmoil over success of Britain
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