This past Sunday, a major political convulsion took place in France, when a majority of voters in that country, one of the founding members of what has become the European Union and the second most populous country in the EU (after Germany), rejected by a 55%-45% margin the option to ratify the EU's new constitution. It must be ratified by all 25 member states to go into effect, so the French "No" vote effectively iced it, at least for now; the winning vote's ripple effects include empowering "No" voters in the Netherlands, where ratification appears increasingly in doubt, and in Britain, where Euroskepticism has been a feature both of the conservative Tory Party and of the left wing of Tony Blair's Labour Party.
Journalist and author Doug Ireland has been following it closely on his always engagingly analytical Direland blog, and breaks down what the vote means more thoroughly and thoughtfully than almost any other non-French account I've read so far. One of the things he discusses is how much the vote was a rejection not only of an excessively bureaucratic, anti-democratic, anti-national sovereignty system that the EU hoped to extend, but also of France's haughty, imperious, scandal-ringed, conservative president Jacques Chirac, whom the US media at times have lumped together with left-leaning anti-war sympathizers because of his unyielding opposition to George W. Bush's neo-con war in Iraq. (Germany, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, India, China, Nigeria, Egypt, and any number of other major allies also openly opposed the war in Iraq, but the French became the right wing's chief bullseye, in part because of Chirac.)
Chirac staked his reputation on a victorious "Yes" vote by national referendum, when he probably could have followed the example of Germany and the other 8 ratifiers (including Spain, Italy, Slovakia, and Slovenia), and passed it by parliamentary action. But his hubris wouldn't allow this. After each of his TV appearances to promote the "Yes" vote, public support fell. Now his chances of reelection to the French Presidency (which combines in various ways the power of the US presidency and the more figure-head of state positions in other parliamentary systems) in two years look nil, and he is being forced to reshuffle his cabinet, which began with his ousting of the deeply unpopular Jean-Marie Raffarin, though as Ireland notes, instead of naming as Prime Minister the leading conservative candidate, and one of his chief rivals, Nicolas Sarkozy, whose rhetoric and policies have been redolent of the US Republican Party's leading figures, he installed the aristocratic, exquisitely maned Dominique de Villepin to the post. (Villepin was the Foreign Minister during the run-up to the Iraq War, and France's leading anti-war champion at the United Nations.) Sarkozy, meanwhile, now heads the Ministry of Interior, and thus is second in command to Villepin, a man he (and many in the Gaullist party) dislikes. Ireland actually unravels much more about Chirac, Villepin, and Sarkozy (including his current marital scandal), and the mainstream French media's pro-"Yes" position, providing what I would imagine is an excellent early signpost to the next French presidential and parliamentary elections, as well as an insightful overview of the French public's current mood.
Yet if I read Ireland (and other accounts) correctly, the success of the "No" vote also signaled the ongoing impotence of France's mainstream leftist parties. The Socialists, along the the Greens, had also campaigned publicly on behalf of the "Yes" vote; Socialist-identified voters overwhelmingly rejected its pro-market ideology and threats to France's liberal social welfare system. Although one major Socialist figure, Laurent Fabius, supported the "Non," many of its strongest adherents came from the far left: the Trotskyites, Communists, union-affiliated figures, and anti-globalization spokespersons such as José Bové, the McDonald's-protesting farmer and politician. I found it interesting to note that while Left or left-leaning parties have in the last few years taken power in a number of countries, like Argentina, Brazil, and quite notably Spain after its 3/11 attack a year ago, or have extended their rule in somewhat weakened form, in Germany and Britain, the mainstream left in France has been out of power both in that country's parliament and its presidential palace for several years, not unlike the far more right-leaning US Democratic Party. Ireland asks some compelling questions about the possible integration of the French far left parties after their victory that are worth thinking about, particularly in terms of future geopolitical scenarios; unfortunately, the other victors in the "No" vote were the nationalist far right, most openly identified with the racist, anti-Semitic extremist Jean-Marie LePen. Anything that one might see as legitimizing him is cause for concern.
(This Libération map also shows that while Paris, Brittany, Alsace-Lorraine, and the Caribbean and (most of) the Pacific départements carried the "Yes" vote, much of rural, Southern and Eastern France voted no, with the strongest "No" regions on the Belgian border (ironies never cease), in Burgundy and the Auvergne, and along the Mediterranean coast.)
For US citizens, the French "No" vote isn't an event of merely Francophilic or academic interest; the political and economic fortunes of the EU have a direct impact on US political and economic policy, especially given that most our country's closest and wealthiest allies belong to this union and there is extensive integration of our economies. One of Chirac's cherished goals was a European military force to rival the US's. I'm not sure whether there was anything in the EU Constitution about this, but a severely weakened Chirac may also stall that this aspect of European integration too.
PS: There is so much more interesting material on Ireland's blog, including information on the possible reopening of an investigation into the death of one of Italy's greatest contemporary figures, the openly gay, leftist fiction writer (Ragazzi, A Violent Life, Petrolio), poet (Roman Poems), essayist (Ashes of Gramsci), journalist, and filmmaker (Canterbury Tales, Teorema, Porcile, Saló) Pier Paolo Pasolini (b. 1922), who was slain under brutal, mysterious circumstances in 1975. He also probes New York Republican mayor Michael Bloomberg's ties to none other than Lenora Fulani....