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From The Socialist newspaper, 2 June 2005

EU referendum: Why French workers voted 'no'

"WE'RE VOTING no. It is a constitution for the bourgeoisie, for multinationals, for bosses. It is only about the economy, competition, profits, the market and capitalism. We are against all that; we are communists. There isn't any progress for workers. Most workers want to say "merde", to stick two fingers up at them. We are fed up with saying yes to politicians".
Thomas Meurnier, a 32 year old history teacher and sympathiser of the French Communist Party (quoted in the Guardian 28 May)

FRANCE HAS voted on the European constitution and, although a win for the no camp was predicted, the result came as a shock to the French and European establishment. On a turnout of 70%, a decisive 55% voted 'no'.

Karl Debbaut

Commentators are struggling to explain why such a clear majority of the French people decided to repudiate all mainstream parties, ignoring the scaremongering by the media and senior politicians.

The French president, Jacques Chirac, and Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the French Prime Minister, tried every trick in the book to cajole the electorate into voting 'yes'. Chirac declared that France would only be able to defend its interests in Europe if it voted 'yes', the alternative being that it would "cease to exist politically, at least for a while". Raffarin warned of the, "spectre of chaos descending on France" and predicted, "long months of economic crisis" following a defeat.

Some of the British media tried to portray the vote against the constitution as a victory for French nationalism or even as a victory for the extreme-right and fascist Front National.

However, while those who voted for the Front National in the last elections are amongst those who voted against the constitution it is deceitful to declare that this 'no' vote is a victory for nationalism and the extreme right.

Polls show, for example, that the fear of a 'flood of Turkish immigrants' as a result of the possible entry of Turkey in the EU, an image raised by the nationalist right and the extreme right, did not really register as a reason to vote against the constitution.

Referendum campaign

The referendum campaign reflected the class divisions in French society. At the beginning of 2005, the opinion polls showed 65% support for the treaty. But during February support for the 'yes' camp began to slide after a series of mobilisations and strikes against the government's plans to abolish the 35-hour week.

The CGT, the second biggest trade union confederation, voted in its leading body, and against the wishes of its own leaders, to appeal for a 'no' vote to the constitution.

This lifted the debate about the European constitution to another level. It made it into a social issue, a political battle against neo-liberal policies, central to the mobilisation of the working class against the Raffarin government.

It electrified the activists, polarised the debate and united private and public-sector workers; pensioners and youth; unemployed and part-time workers.

On 5 February more than 500,000 public and private-sector workers took part in demonstrations to defend the 35-hour week, many of them carrying placards and banners against the European constitution. On Thursday 10 March more than one million people took to the streets of France demanding better wages and battling against a longer working week.

Working-class force

This impressive show of working-class force, the fifth national day of action since the beginning of 2005, was the most important mobilisation since the battles against pension reform in the spring of 2003.

At the same time, France was hit by an important mobilisation of school students against education reform. There were school student strikes, occupations of schools and a day of action in which 160,000 school students participated in 150 demonstrations across France.

This rise in class consciousness, brought about through the struggles of the working class, found its expression in the vote against the European constitution. The majority of workers who earn less than e3,000 a month voted against the constitution. 66% of those who earn less than e1,500 a month voted against.

The French daily Le Monde (30 May) wrote that 79% of blue collar workers voted against the European constitution (up by 18 points since the referendum on the Maastricht treaty in 1992) and amongst white collar workers opposition reached 67%.

For the establishment, a worrying sign of the deep social crisis is that, for the first time, a majority (53%) of middle class professionals voted against the European Union as it stands, unhappy that it does not do enough to protect their wages in a globalised world.

"It's 'May 68' in the polling stations - a France that the politicians had better start listening to" said Roland Cayrol of the polling agency CSA, referring to the revolutionary movements which took place in France in that year.

Capitalist offensive

RAFFARIN and Chirac came to power with big majorities as a result of the presidential elections in April 2002. In the first round, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the candidate of the far right, beat the social democrat and then Prime Minister Jospin to third place, while Chirac received less than 20% of the vote.

Two weeks later, Chirac was re-elected as President with 82% because the mass mobilisation against Le Pen was channelled into the campaign to vote for Chirac.

The three years that followed saw an offensive of the French capitalist class against public services and social security. Chirac and Raffarin had gained political capital and, despite all the talk of representing the whole of France, they used it to attack the working class and poor.

The employers' federation Medef saw things move in their direction - pension reform in 2003, privatisation or part-privatisation of public services including La Poste, EDF-GDF (electricity and gas company) and a tightening of public spending.

According to the CGT, public-sector wages have fallen in real terms by 5 to 6% in the last three years. Shareholders have never had it so good. Total, the oil company, published profits for 2004 that were up by 24%, to e9 billion. L'Oreal, the cosmetic group, managed a rise in profits of 143% while Societe Generale made 3 billion.

The class polarisation in French society has reached such heights - the anger at the corrupt and wasteful elite, the frustration at capitalism's inability to develop society - that it is right to point to elements of May 1968 reappearing.

May 1968

"The centre-right and the centre-left parties are like the twin towers. You know they will collapse but we do not know, yet, which one will go first".

This quote is attributed by the press agency Reuters to a leading member of the centre-right UMP (Chirac's party) and an indication of the political instability in French society aggravated by the campaign surrounding the European constitution.

The political authority of centre-right and centre-left parties is in tatters. Raffarin, who has now had to go, was leading the least popular government in the history of the fifth republic. President Chirac's personal approval ratings have slipped to 40%, the lowest in eight years.

The weakest of the French twin towers is the social democratic Parti Socialiste (PS). The current leader Francois Hollande organised an internal referendum in the PS to determine the position the party would take. The 'yes' vote won with 59% of the members in favour of the constitution.

Under pressure from the working- class mobilisation, and as an attempt to shore up the support for the PS in general and their own careers in particular, a second tier of PS leaders began to campaign for a 'no' vote. Henri Emmanueli, ex leader of the PS waded in with sharp interventions comparing PS members who support the European constitution with socialists who voted to grant full powers to the Vichy Nazi-collaborationist regime of Marshal Henri Petain in 1940.

The sharpness of the debate in the Parti Socialiste does not necessarily reflect a left-wing turn or growing popularity of the party among working class activists.

Although the PS can gain electorally and defeat the right wing in the next elections, the PS is devoid of an alternative to the policies of the present centre-right majority and people have not forgotten the policies of the Jospin government which started the drive for more flexibility and privatisations and led to the catastrophic election results in 2002.

It is telling that the leader of the no vote inside the PS is Laurent Fabius, the number two of the party and Mitterrand's Prime Minister in 1983. At the time he belonged to the right wing of the Parti Socialiste.

Not so long ago he claimed to have been a Blairite before Blair. Now he has reinvented himself in the hope of conquering his party's candidacy for the presidential elections in 2007.

It is, however, too soon to predict what will happen to the PS except to say that it is an unstable force and even a split cannot be ruled out.

The French working class, having fought against the neo-liberalism of the Raffarin government on the streets have now given this struggle a political expression. Now it needs to build a mass political force on the basis of a fighting socialist programme.

Immediately, the representatives of the working class in the 'no' campaign should launch an appeal to workers, trade unionists and activists in other European countries to come together, draw up a programme of fighting demands - including nationalisation under workers' control and management of failing industries - and act as organising centres to coordinate the future struggles against neo-liberalism.

No to a big-business Europe

THE REJECTION of the European constitution in France is a rejection of 'globalised' capitalism. It is a rejection of neo-liberal reform, a rejection of privatisation and a dismissal of the free marketeers.

European capitalism is in a profound economic and political crisis. The Eurozone economy is barely growing and 'lame-duck' governments are in office in France, Britain, Germany, Italy and in several East European countries. This crisis has been compounded by the EU constitution vote.

The French and European capitalist class are calling for a period of 'reflection'. It is more than likely that the European constitution will be declared officially dead.

While that would be a significant blow to the confidence of the European capitalist class and could unleash more working-class struggles against neo-liberal measures in the countries of the European Union, it will not in itself end the impetus towards further economic and political cooperation and integration.

Neo-liberal agenda

The ruling classes of the different European countries want to transform Europe into an economic and political rival to US imperialism on the world stage. A crucial part of this scheme is the 'Lisbon agenda' of privatisation and deregulation - a war on workers' rights, social protection and benefits.

This is the kind of European cooperation that the establishment parties and every employers' organisation in Europe agrees on. Blair and Brown have already announced that when Britain takes over the presidency of the European Union they will push ahead with a neo-liberal agenda to make the rest of Europe as much a paradise for capitalists as Britain.

Nelli Kroes, the EU Competition commissioner, has called for tighter rules on state aid and government subsidies. A few weeks from now the 'Frankenstein' directive to liberalise Europe's service sector will come back to the fore.

At the same time, however, there are increased tensions between the European states which have been reinforced by the referendum result in France. The gathering economic crisis means that European inter-state rivalries and tensions are going to be more pronounced in the future and governments will come under increasing pressure from the struggles of their own working class. All this will cut across moves towards economic and political integration.

Socialists, while fighting to defend the rights of workers and taking part in all struggles for reforms in favour of the working class, point to the failure of capitalism to develop society. Socialists and workers must oppose all attempts to secure and legitimise the EU project of big business and the rich.

The EU cannot be democratised, either by a constitution or by a constituent assembly. Only when the whole edifice of this neo-liberal union is broken down can we begin to build a society based on real solidarity between the workers and poor of Europe.

This solidarity and unity will be based upon the voluntary cooperation between the peoples of Europe, upon the construction of a society in which the key sectors of the economy are taken out of the hands of the bankers, tycoons and majority shareholders.

A society in which the economy is planned, managed and controlled by the working class - a socialist society.

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In The Socialist 2 June 2005:

Say no to the bosses' profit system

EU constitution defeated

Why French workers voted 'no' to EU referendum

Defend adult education

ID cards: 300 for a snooper's card!

The campaign for Socialism 2005 begins now

Capitalism can't solve AIDS crisis

"Struggle or death" - Pakistan telecoms workers fight privatisation

Germany: Political turmoil after the elections

Iraq: coalition plans floundering

Labour court awards Gama workers 8,000

Striking back at pay-cutting bosses

BBC offer must be rejected

It is privatisation and it is as we know it

Coventry single status dispute: the stakes are raised

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Job losses expose Manchester's 'boom'


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