Anticonstitutionnellement, meaning anti-constitutionally, is the longest word in the French dictionary. The referendum campaign on the European Union (EU) constitution promises to be very long indeed for the French president, Jacques Chirac, and the Socialist Party leader, François Hollande.
The latest three opinion polls show the no vote well ahead. If they are right the French vote could send shock waves across the continent. The constitution is the European bourgeoisie’s attempt to put neo-liberal policies at the heart of the EU.
It was concocted by European parliamentarians and bureaucrats. Only a third of the constitution has been debated even by its authors.
The constitution is, of course, a formal statement of existing economic policy, but in some ways it goes further. For example, “public services” have disappeared from the document. They are replaced by “services of general interest” — which may be private or public. The right to a job, already a rather doubtful concept, is replaced by the right to look for a job. And the constitution demands that European governments increase their arms spending.
For many French workers inflicting a political defeat on Chirac is reason enough to make them vote no, but millions also realise that this constitution will provide the framework for further social regression (“No, you have to pay for your health service, it’s written in the constitution…”).
A no vote could mean the end of the current right wing government. Chirac would be under pressure to resign. And it would deepen the crisis in the Socialist Party, which is similar to Britain’s Labour Party. The Hollande leadership has given up resistance to neo-liberal policies — at best proposing measures to soften the worst effects, but in reality just sugaring the bitter pill.
However the left wing of the Socialist Party has called for a no vote, and won 43 percent in an internal party vote. The two main left leaders, former general secretary Henri Emmanuelli and left socialist (and ex-Trotskyist) Jean-Luc Melenchon, have been threatened with disciplinary measures but the leadership doesn’t dare go further.
An even bigger shock was the decision of the general council of the CGT, France’s largest trade union confederation, to call for a no vote. The CGT leadership wanted the union to abstain. But setbacks over pensions in 2003, the privatisation of the electricity sector and attacks on the health service all fuelled opposition to the leadership. Never before has the CGT leadership suffered a defeat in an internal debate.
Finally the Communist Party and the Ligue Communist Révolutionnaire (LCR), together with radical left groups opposed to neo-liberalism such as Attac, are all running an active campaign for a massive no vote.
Recent strikes and demonstrations, notably the demonstration in Brussels on 19 March against a neo-liberal Europe, have amplified the movement, and the debate around the no vote has politicised the strike movements.
Hundreds of no vote committees are being built around the country. The media are panicking, and in every workplace you will find people talking about the EU. The far right is also campaigning against the constitution but on a nationalist basis, and the strikes and demonstrations mean that they are not the main driving force for the no campaign.
The campaign has pushed the Socialist Party leadership towards the mainstream Tory right, and at the same time pulled part of the party towards more radical left positions.
If the no campaign wins it could give confidence to millions of workers and highlight the need for a left wing alternative to the Socialist Party. Even the far left Lutte Ouvrière, who abstained over the Maastricht agreement, are calling for a no vote. Revolutionaries have to fuel this political crisis.
It is amazing that some obscure document defining the way European capitalism functions may well be the opening that the anti-capitalist left has been waiting for.
Nick Barrett is a member of the LCR
LCR website (in French): www.lcr-rouge.org