The referendum in France: Workers say "no" to capitalist Europe


The referendum in France on the European Constitution has resulted in a decisive defeat for the ruling class. In spite of a particularly intense campaign by the media, the UMP government and the right-wing of the Socialist Party, 55% of voters have rejected the treaty.

The referendum in France on the European Constitution has resulted in a decisive defeat for the ruling class. In spite of a particularly intense campaign by the media, the UMP government and the right-wing of the Socialist Party, 55% of voters have rejected the treaty. The participation in the poll was very high. Of the 42 million people in France who have the right to vote, 70% participated in the referendum.

The Constitution was to serve two basic purposes. Firstly, it was designed to ensure that the major powers – France and Germany in particular – maintained their dominant position within the recently enlarged EEC. Had the authors of the Constitution confined themselves to this part of the text, they might well have gained a majority. But they went much further than this. A whole series of clauses were written into the document in an attempt to render legally and constitutionally binding the pursuit of reactionary policies such as privatisation, destruction of public services, ending of state subsidies to industry, increased arms spending, military subordination to NATO and increased competition between workers throughout Europe in order to bring down wages. Of course, a sprinkling of flowery phrases about human rights were included in the text, but even these were tailored to suit the interests of big business, such as the constitutional right of all workers to... look for work !

At the beginning of the year, opinion polls gave a clear majority in favour of the treaty. That was before anybody had read it. President Chirac decided to have the Constitution ratified by a referendum. Clearly, at that time, the ruling class parties and the employers federation MEDEF thought the result was a forgone conclusion. After all, on the surface of things, they had good reason to think so. Day after day, the mass media was pumping out propaganda in favour of the Constitution. They also had the unflinching support of their “moderate” puppets in the leadership of the French Socialist Party. The leadership of the powerful CGT trade union confederation was also in favour of the treaty, to the extent that some CGT leaders, such as Le Digou, together with millionnaire MEDEF members, had formed an association whose purpose was to campaign in favour of its adoption.

However, it soon became obvious that things were not going according to plan. Within the Socialist Party, in spite of intense pressure from François Hollande and the right-wing leadership, 42% of party members voted against the Constitution. Then, within the CGT, the leadership, sensing the mounting opposition to the treaty within its ranks, opted first of all for a “neutral” position, before having this overturned by a large majority on the national council. The “no” vote then became the official position of the confederation.

The campaigning work on the streets was carried out mainly by the French Communist Party, which produced material analysing and explaining the meanings hidden in legalistic jargon used in the treaty. After the huge strikes and demonstrations over recent years, through which workers and youth had unsuccessfully attempted to make the government back down on issues such as pensions, the working week, social security, health and education, their opposition to the government had already been reflected on the political plane, as shown by the historic victories of the left parties in the European and regional elections in 2004. Now, the issues raised in the European Constitution were seen for what they were: an attempt to constitutionally “tie the hands” of a future left-wing government and prevent the reversal of the reactionary policies imposed upon them over recent years.

As the campaign gathered pace, the opposition to the treaty developed on a massive scale, with huge numbers of ordinary people, most of whom had never been involved in politics until now, turning out to hear speakers from the Communist Party and the left opposition within the Socialist Party. On an almost daily basis, rallies involving thousands of people took place in different parts of the country. Even in small villages, meetings of one or two hundred people were commonplace. Militants giving out leaflets and posters would be asked for copies to post up in workplaces. In what seemed like a modern equivalent of the Cahiers des doléances – whereby, on the eve of the French Revolution, the people of France expressed their grievances – people attending public meetings spoke out angrily against unemployment, against poor and inadequate housing, against falling wages and living standards, against factories moving to Poland or China in search of higher profits. They spoke of the arrogance and brutality of the employers, the harassment of trade unionists, of racism and of the sorry plight of immigrants and political exiles, and of comfortable “socialist” politicians, who knew nothing of and cared even less for all of this. One such socialist politician, the European MP Olivier Duhamel, declared publicly that he could not understand this sudden turn of events, and that France was “sliding down into Bolshevism”!

Only 13 départements (similar to counties in Britain) showed a majority vote for the Constitution. 83 had majorities against. In the more working class areas, the vote against was often over 70%. 60% of under-25’s and 80% of manual workers voted against. The decisive rejection of this pro-capitalist constitution will have both immediate and long-term consequences in France, and indeed throughout Europe. The Raffarin government has been dismissed, and another UMP government will be installed in its place. This will achieve nothing, except for deepening the already profound and bitter divisions within the UMP itself.

Within the Socialist Party, a major crisis is now inevitable. Initially, François Hollande had threatened any party members who were caught campaigning for a “no” vote with immediate expulsion. He backed down on this, given that even supporters of the Constitution within the party were opposed to repressive measures of this kind. Hollande then accused opponents of the treaty, which he qualified as being “uneducated”, and “irrational”, as being allies of the racist National Front. He even went so far as to announce that François Mitterrand was in favour of the Constitution! The impact of this information was immediately countered, however, with the intervention of Danielle Mitterrand, the wife of the former President, who declared she was against. She has an undoubted advantage over her husband, in that she has not been dead for the last 10 years! The fact that, according to various polls, anything between 56% and 70% of the Socialist Party electorate have now voted against the treaty puts Hollande in an extremely difficult position.

Opposition from the left within the party is mirrored by that of Laurent Fabius, who has been for many years the figurehead of the most conservative wing of the party. The possibility of a majority “no” vote in the referendum was seen by Fabius as a means of challenging Hollande for the leadership of the party. This would open the way for him to become the party candidate in the 2007 presidential elections. The problem is that the leaders of the left reformist opposition within the Socialist Party – Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Henri Emmanuelli – are not reliable. In the past, Mélenchon has supported Fabius against Michel Rocard, claiming that the former was more “left” than the latter. More recently, he supported Jospin and Hollande against Fabius. And so it cannot be excluded that he will now support Fabius against Hollande, in exchange for positions in the party leadership and the promise of a ministry in the next socialist government. Be that as it may, the right-wing leadership of the Socialist Party has been seriously weakened by the defeat in the referendum, and this opens up the perspective of major struggles within the party in the months and years that lie ahead.

The party which will benefit the most from the referendum victory is the French Communist Party (PCF). Undoubtedly, it was the main workers’ organisation involved in the “no” campaign. This will have important consequences, and lead to a strengthening of the organisation in terms of members and votes in elections. Demands are now being raised by many of the workers and youth involved in the campaign for the resignation of Chirac, the dissolution of the National Assembly and the calling of legislative elections, in order to sweep the capitalist parties out of power. Chirac, however, will not resign. By changing the Prime Minister and carrying out a “cabinet reshuffle”, he will attempt, over the next two years, to continue his attacks against the working people. But both he and his party are completely discredited. Clearly, the 2007 elections will lead to the return of a left government with a large majority. Between now and then, France will undoubtedly be shaken by further social and political turmoil. The key question for the future is that of the programme of the left parties.