The coverage by the so-called quality press of the referendums on the European constitution in France and the Netherlands has been a complete disgrace.
Take last Sunday’s Observer, which portrayed “the No family” as “Monsieur Non the farmer”, “Mrs Nej the sceptic”, “Master Nee the nationalist”, and “Signorina Non the protester”.
Maybe this parade of tabloid anti-European prejudice is only what one can expect from a once fine newspaper that has degenerated into a populist Blairite rag whose idea of in-depth coverage is a feature on Abi Titmuss.
You get essentially the same interpretation from the Guardian. Martin Kettle wrote last week, “The no vote would not have won in France without the forces of Jean-Marie Le Pen. The no vote would not have won in Holland without the supporters of Pim Fortuyn.”
This is true to the extent that the xenophobic right were one constituent of the no vote. But they were a minor player in France.
Le Pen’s high-water mark came when he stood against Jacques Chirac in the second round of the last presidential elections in May 2002. He got 17.79 percent of the vote to Chirac’s 82.21 percent.
This is less than the combined share of the smaller left parties in the first round. The French far right didn’t defeat the European constitution.
The decisive force in the no vote came from within the mainstream reformist left. The rank and file of the Socialist and Green parties and of the CGT trade union federation rebelled against their leaderships and voted against the constitution.
Don’t let anyone tell you this was because of fear of Polish plumbers or hatred of Turks. A poll found that the issue that counted most for voters — 41 percent of all voters, 55 percent of no voters—was the social situation in France.
The possible entry of Turkey into the European Union (EU) came only fifth — counting 14 percent of all voters and 20 percent of no voters.
The driving force in the vote was reaction against the way in which neo-liberalism is changing French society for the worse, and opposition to the agenda for the EU laid out in the constitution and by the European Commission — which is neo-liberalism.
But Tony Blair and Gordon Brown see the referendum results as an opportunity to force through “reforms” — yet more neo-liberalism that will supposedly revitalise stagnant continental Europe. Here again much of what we get from the “quality” press is facile propaganda.
Michael White wrote in the Guardian on Wednesday last week, in what was meant to be an “objective” news report, “Economically and politically, the facts are on London’s side, as is the fact of the capital’s booming economy.”
The “facts”? Despite the high levels of unemployment in the euro-zone, Germany is now the world’s largest exporter, while British manufacturing continues to shrink. Labour productivity — output per hour — is much higher in France and Germany than it is in Britain.
Anyone interested in understanding what’s happening in Europe would see that the French no vote was not a xenophobic revolt against what White calls “the harsh realities of a globalised economy”. It marked the intensification of the crisis of representation that became visible in the first round of the presidential elections in April 2002.
Writing in Le Monde, pollsters Philippe Chirqui and Pierre Christian point out that the centre right and centre left parties, which supported the constitution, only won 56 percent of the votes on 21 April 2002. They comment, “The referendum finds its electoral analogy in the historic vote of 21 April, which had sent the strongest message till today to the system. Today the message is reinforced by the expression of a social malaise that all political forces must take into account.”
We witnessed the same kind of rebellion against official politics in Britain in the European elections a year ago and the general election last month. It is fed by the unanimous support given by mainstream politicians and the media to neo-liberalism.
Fortunately, as the role played by the radical left in giving voice to these rebellions showed, Mrs Thatcher was wrong. There is an alternative.