I have always thought of the French as free, but not particularly democratic. They are ruled by elites of school chums, and held hostage by small but powerful lobbies, such as the farmers, truckers, and labor unions generally, who feel few qualms about paralyzing the economy or shredding the social fabric to protect their narrow interests. I was in Paris 12 years ago when the government tried to privatize Air France. The unions closed down De Gaulle Airport, and the government caved. That pattern is repeated a dozen times each year.
The EU constitution was built on the French model. It is less a structure of government than an aggregation of privileges – hundreds of pages of them. It will result in an even more established, and less accountable, EU ruling elite above the national elites of Europe.
No one should fear the rise of tyrants: the Europeans are aging too fast, and reproducing too slowly, to generate the kind of energy necessary for an overthrow of the established order. But a people who know their fates lie in the hands of distant and indifferent mandarins will tend to behave like children rather than citizens: and infantilized electorates, in turn, will continue to surrender the difficult duties of freedom for the pleasures of the here and now.
All of which should be kept in mind while reading this excellent analysis (via Real Clear Politics) by Charles Wyplosz, who as befits a true European is given a preposterously long title: Professor of International Economics and Director of the International Centre for Money and Banking Studies at the Graduate Institute of International Studies, Geneva. Wyplosz explains the causes for the French backlash against the EU constitution, and he is essentially accurate in his description. The French appear ready to vote down the constitution because, like Faust, they wish for time to stop, and nothing to change from the present hour. Yet the present is just one moment in a slow slide toward decline.
Of course, most French people would ultimately benefit from doing away with this inefficient web of big and small privileges, but most voters, depressed by poor economic prospects and unnerved by high unemployment, are simply unwilling to take the risk. They do not understand the roots of their economic troubles and are nostalgic for better times. They mistakenly see the European Constitution as one more challenge, at a time when they want to be nursed and protected. Scared people rarely make wise choices.
True enough, but the passage of the constitution will in fact enshrine the “web” of mutually debilitating privileges that is French society today, and remove government further from the people. No advocate of freedom can wish for that outcome, even for our friends the French.
UPDATE: I just noticed this item by Christopher Caldwell at the Weekly Standard site, making a similar point to mine. Pound for pound the EU constitution will crush all contenders: it has 448 articles to a measly seven for ours. Caldwell cites Etienne Chouard, who runs an anti-constitution blog (francophones may wish to link to it here).
The content of the blog is fascinating. Chouard makes a worthy republican case for the non vote, discussing the separation of powers and even citing Montesquieu, who has as much to do with the present shape of French governance as does Father Christmas. He believes the constitution will lock French economic policy in a “liberal” or free-market posture – but his isn’t the kind of denial of reality or fear of change described by Wyplosz. Chouard maintains that, in a democracy, the alternation of economic policies should be a natural outcome of the alternation of parties in government. All very sensible, and hard to disagree with.