PARIS – I knew French President Jacques Chirac’s (search) goose was cooked when I made the daily visit to my neighborhood newspaper kiosk.
I asked the always friendly woman who runs it how she was going to vote in the referendum Sunday on the new European Union constitution (search) and she almost blew my head off. “Non!” she proclaimed (that’s “No!” in English). Why, I asked. “Because!” she replied with a mischievous grin.
And that’s how it went with many of my conversations with the French about the vote. The constitution itself seemed almost irrelevant. Most people I spoke with admitted they hadn’t leafed through its few hundred pages. There they would have found efforts by Europe’s leaders to make the EU more workable as it expands to 25 countries and beyond.
No, the vote and the document were really just handy punching bags so the French could vent all the anger … and fear … they’re feeling today. About high unemployment, low economic growth, lost benefits, globalism, the free market and immigration. Get my drift? Just about anything that ails them now.
All of this neatly summed in the persona of the number one proponent of the treaty, Chirac. Boy does he not get what the French are feeling these days. He is still from the French Old Boy’s School that thinks things can be handed down from on royal high and the citizenry will take it.
Well I got news for you Jacques: The French are mad as hell … and they’re not going to take it anymore.
I interviewed French political analyst and friend Christian Mallard (search) for a story on the vote. He confided to me (as he usually does) his sources had the inside track: It will be 58 percent voting “no” (he was close). I asked him what that would do to Chirac. “It’s going to be hell!” Mallard declared. “I don’t even want to think about it!”
Now all of France and Europe and the rest of the world have to think about it. The damage to Chirac is pretty straightforward: Terminal. He will be shaking up his government (for yet another time) in the coming days. That government will do little to rock the boat and get the French angrier. He will not (as he has led some to believe he would) run for a third term in office in 2007. And his fellow acolytes will cook up some legal scheme to keep at least a half dozen corruption charges hanging over his head from ever landing there!
As for the constitution and the European Union? Well the Brussels officials have been putting on a brave face saying they will keep pushing the erstwhile document through the ratification process. And maybe if all the other countries in the EU pass the thing they’ll try to ram it down the throats of the French again (they’ve been known to do that in the past). Or maybe they’ll just rejigger it and try a new treaty on for size. Or they’ll just muddle along without it. I’m not too worried about the EU. The folks there are the kings of mushy compromises.
What worries me most are the French people. For all their righteous indignation, they were angry for the wrong reasons. They voted against the constitution because they’re afraid for their jobs, they want to keep their cushy lives, they want to maintain the status quo. Well they’re just writing their own national death sentence.
Because the EU document has nothing to do with what ails them now. They better wake up and smell the Starbuck’s coffee and understand that bulking up on vacation and days off is nice … but it isn't going to get you ahead. And having every social benefit in the world is wonderful, but there’s going to be nothing left for their children. And instead of fearing outsiders entering the French Magic Kingdom (the boogie man this year was a low-wage Polish plumber) they should welcome them so they can get on with the other creative and stylish things the French do.
Don’t get me wrong. Having lived in France for more than eight years I know there are a lot of great and distinctive things about the country. But there are just a few stumbling blocks to capitalizing on that greatness. Like politicians lacking the courage to level with their citizens. And citizens too afraid to understand that change is not always bad.
After I had bought that day’s wad of newspapers from my kiosk attendant she made sure I was aware of something else: She and all of the newspaper distributors wouldn’t be working on Monday. They were going on strike for some reason I missed.
The strike never really materialized. Thank heavens! We would have missed all the career obituaries for Jacques Chirac, the man they used to call "Le Bulldozer." It appears he and his fellow countrymen have now dug themselves into a very uncomfortable political ditch!