WORLD

A republic deeply divided

Voters face a pivotal referendum on closer European union

ANDREW PHILLIPS September 21 1992
WORLD

A republic deeply divided

Voters face a pivotal referendum on closer European union

ANDREW PHILLIPS September 21 1992

A republic deeply divided

Voters face a pivotal referendum on closer European union

FRANCE

Even in a country where politics and show business mix as smoothly as Pernod and water, it must have been one of the most bizarre political rallies ever. A dozen rap groups with names like Zone X and Crazy MCM gathered in the middle of Paris last week to chant the praises of European unity. Their precise message was not always clear, as when a duo called Truth-Crew rapped out the unforgettable lyrics, “Swing bip bop, Europe hip hop, move nonstop!”

But the general sentiment was unmistakable: with a little discreet funding from France’s ruling Socialist party, the rappers were urging young people to vote “oui” on Sept. 20 when the country holds its pivotal referendum on the Maastricht treaty on European union. “We must say ‘yes’ to Europe,” organiznizer Pierre Orsatelli told the sweating crowd during a break in the concert. “It’s as simple as that.”

The problem for the gov ernment of President Fran cois Mitterrand, and for other European leaders who see the Maastricht agreement as the continent's best guaran tee of future unity and pros perity, is that the issue is not at all that simple for France's restive voters~ A dozen polls last week showed the country almost evenly divided over the treaty. But the possibility that French voters might re ject the deal was enough to send shock waves through

political establishments across Europe. A French “non” would kill the ambitious treaty, which takes its name from the Dutch town where the 12 European Community leaders hammered it out last December. That would derail the agreement’s complex blueprint for a single European currency by 1999, as well as common defence and security policies for all EC countries. The consequences, warn government officials, would be serious, ranging from immediate upheaval in Europe’s financial markets to greater long-term instability across a continent already weathering its worst crises since the Second World War.

Danish voters dealt the treaty its first setback in June when they narrowly rejected it in their own referendum. EC leaders maintained that they could find a way around that obstacle. But a defeat in France, traditionally the driving force of European unity, would sink the entire deal. As a result, other European leaders rushed to lend their support to the “yes” forces.

German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who has staked much of his political credibility on the success of the Maastricht deal, appeared with Mitterrand on a special TV broadcast to assuage French fears that the new united Germany is out to dominate Europe. Spain’s strongly pro-EC prime minister, Felipe González, appeared at a rally for the “yes” camp. French leaders recruited scores of top celebrities, including actors Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu, to lend the pro-Maastricht cause a bit of glamor. And they issued strong warnings of the consequences of a “no” victory. Jack Lang, the French minister in charge of the government’s referendum campaign, predicted darkly that a “no” vote would lead to “a crisis of confidence, a depression that would hit the whole of Europe.”

Such heated rhetoric had its equivalent in the “no” campaign, a disparate grouping that includes the far right and far left, as well as many in the middle. On the right, the extremist National Front led by Jean-Marie Le Pen

But those parties together speak for only about 20 per cent of voters. The powerful new opposition to the Maastricht deal comes from a band of moderately conservative politicians who say that while European unity is a good idea, the treaty itself is fatally flawed.

warned (incorrectly) that Maastricht would eliminate remaining border controls and flood France with immigrants. Communists and a breakaway faction of Socialists, meanwhile, claimed that the treaty would undermine the rights of French workers.

Chief among them is Philippe Séguin, a parliamentary deputy for the Gaullist Rally for the Republic party. The party’s leader, Jacques Chirac, is campaigning for a “yes,” but Séguin has won growing support for the antiMaastricht forces during a dogged grassroots campaign across France. A big, shambling bear of a man with a rumbling voice, Séguin took his campaign last week to Dijon, the eastern city re-

At the same time, Séguin distanced himself from extremists on the “no” side by stressing that he supports the EC, including its program to create a single Western European market by Jan. 1, 1993. The so-called 1992 plan, which will eliminate virtually all barriers to the free movement of people, goods and services, was agreed on long before Maastricht and will

nowned for its mustard. There were no rhetorical fireworks; in fact, the 1,200 locals who packed into an arena to hear him sat through more than 90 minutes of painstaking analysis of the complex document. But Séguin clearly struck a chord when he warned against the unpredictable consequences of giving up familiar French francs in favor of the Ecu, the common European currency proposed in the treaty. And he won cheers when he denounced the unelected EC “technocrats” in faraway Brussels. almost certainly go ahead even if the treaty dies in its present form. But despite his avowals of commitment to the ideal of “Europe,” Séguin was clearly also appealing to French national pride and sovereignty, the kind of feeling that Charles de Gaulle himself epitomized. Many conservative voters are quick to applaud Séguin’s warning that more power given to Brussels under Maastricht would undermine French sovereignty. “There’s a reawakening of national identity,” said Jean Simonot, the head of a local association of small businesses, after hearing Séguin speak in Dijon last week. “We don’t want to depend on a bunch of bureaucrats in Brussels for our future.” Others sounded similar concerns. “We’re

not against Europe as it is,” said Alain Crettiez, a 50-year-old nuclear engineer who came with his wife, Anne, to hear Séguin. “We’re not going to roll back the last 40 years of building these common institutions. But Maastricht proposes all sorts of new directions that haven’t been properly explained.” Still others had more concrete worries. “The whole idea of a new currency bothers me,” said Denis Piotte, also 50 and a technician at Dijon’s Valduc nuclear research centre. Piotte plucked a thick wad of francs from his pocket and regarded it thoughtfully. “This is something we know,” he mused. “Why should we give it up for promises from a bunch of politicians?”

Others supporting the “no” side cite a litany of concerns and fears that have little to do with the Maastricht treaty itself. The EC’s inability to intervene successfully in Yugoslavia’s civil war, they say, shows that common security policies are an illusion. The influx of immigrants and refugees into France, they argue, means that French sovereignty should be strengthened—an argument that ignores the fact that the treaty actually proposes measures to tighten security along the EC’s borders. And Germany’s growing power leaves the antiMaastricht campaigners worried that the proposed new European Central Bank would amount to little more than a vehicle for German financiers to dictate economic policy. “If the Germans are so enthusiastic about it, it must be in their interest,” said Fabrice Moriaux, an intense 19-year-old economics student at the University of Dijon who helped to organize Séguin’s rally.

For the “yes” forces, the same fears voiced by the “no” camp provide arguments in favor of the treaty. Disarray in post-communist Eastern Europe, they maintain, means that the West must draw closer together for the sake of stability. A single market requires a single currency to cement it in place, they say. And far from being a way for the Germans to dominate Europe, the “yes” camp argues, monetary union will further ensure that Germany is tightly bound to the democratic West—and is not tempted to go its own way. The emergence in Germany of neo-Nazi groups and riots against foreigners, an aide to Prime Minister Pierre Bérégovoy maintained last week, “shows yet again that we have to draw Germany ever closer to us—for our sake and for theirs.”

Further complicating the issue is the fading popularity of Mitterrand and his Socialist party, which has been in power for 11 years. French commentators say that the 76-year-old president regards Maastricht as the crowning achievement of his career—and he has urged voters not to take out their frustrations with him on the European issue. Many leading conservatives who favor Maastricht have urged voters to reserve their judgment on the Socialists until National Assembly elections

Whatever the outcome, France’s leaders have already given ample evidence that they are out of touch with their people. Albert Bressand, director of the independent Paris think-tank PROMETHEE, noted that the government never envisaged calling a referendum until the surprise Danish rejection of the Maastricht deal on June 2. “They did not bring the people along with them,” he noted. “At least now people are seriously examining the issues for the first time.” Or as the rap group Cartel de la Rime put it at their concert for the “yes” forces last Thursday night: “When it comes to Europe, France is in a state of shock.”

next March. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the conservative former president who favors the deal, summed it up neatly in his slogan: “Vote ‘yes’ in September, ‘no’ in March.”

ANDREW PHILLIPS

in Paris