PARIS—Shortly before French voters solidly trounced the EU constitution in Sunday’s national referendum, there was a joke doing the rounds of the capital. A Frenchman thrusts his fist in the air and shouts defiantly, “I’m voting non!” Then after a pause he asks, “What was the question again?”
On Monday, French newspaper editors tried to remind the voters what exactly they had said “non” to and how serious the political fallout might be for one of the European Union’s founding fathers. France’s conservative daily Le Figaro—the closest thing President Jacques Chirac had to a mouthpiece during the referendum campaign—underscored just how seismic the political jolt was by splashing color across its typically sober monochrome front page. With the blue EU flag sprawled across Page One, the giant headline read simply: “NON.” That word, at least, was no surprise. At least 10 polls before Sunday’s vote had showed that the French were determined to snub Chirac, who had spent weeks making incoherent, belated pleas asking voters to support the 450-page constitution.
But the size of the non victory forced even Le Figaro’s editors to accept that their man in the Elysée Palace was likely a spent force. The possibility of Chirac running for a third presidential term in 2007 was “if not impossible, seemingly more uncertain than ever,” said the paper’s commentary on Sunday’s political blowout. Le Figaro also looked to France’s standing abroad, where the political price for Sunday’s vote will most likely be paid. “France’s image is profoundly changed today,” said the paper’s Monday editorial. “A land of certitude, it has shown how much it has in reality become accustomed to doubt.”
Perhaps most revealing were the maps published alongside many of the articles in Monday’s papers. The left-wing daily Libération, which had tried unsuccessfully to persuade French Socialists not to split over the constitution, showed a solid red non stretching clear across the country, save for the blue-colored western edges of Brittany, with its close ties to Britain; eastern France, where many families trace their roots to Germany; Paris; and the French Caribbean islands, where French overseas citizens still have the vote. The maps were an eerie reminder of the red-blue divide in the map of the United States after Bush’s re-election last November.
In his Monday column, Libération Editor Serge July blamed French leftists for rejecting the constitution out of a “crisis of pain, fear, anxiety, and anger.” Above all, it was the fear of modernizing France’s lavish social services and labor protections to compete with the surging economies of the new central European members, which had sent millions of French voters scurrying back into their old familiar camps. July said that “liberalism” had replaced capitalism as the new bogeyman among French leftists, turning the referendum into a debate “for or against globalization.” He concluded, “The French know from experience that our country is doing badly. Unfortunately, it is going to be worse from this morning.”
How much worse could it be? Judging by Europe’s reaction, it could be pretty bad. On its front page, El País, Spain’s leading liberal newspaper, signaled a “crisis in government” for Chirac. Italy’s Il Messagerro called the vote “[A]brupt. Brutal. It sounded like a verdict.” And Britain’s Guardian looked into the near future and saw grim economic prospects ahead. “Its defeat … is very bad news for those who want a more coherent Europe punching at its weight,” declared a Guardian editorial. “The value of the euro dipped on foreign exchanges last week in response to signs that the no’s were holding their lead. Americans, Chinese and Indians, vying for advantage in an interdependent world, will be able to get their way more easily if Europeans are in disarray.” The Guardian also pointed to the key issue that had helped galvanize non votes: Turkey. European officials are due to begin discussing Turkey’s entry into the European Union later this year. The fear of admitting 60 million Muslims into the club during next decade was one of uglier sides of France’s non campaign.
Back in Paris, I wish I could tell you that I picked up the newspapers at my local kiosque and wandered to the cafe to read them over a leisurely café au lait. Unfortunately, the neighborhood’s newsstands have been bolted shut since last Monday for a five-day strike. Handbills pasted on the newsstand windows explained to customers that the workers were protesting the “proliferation” of newspaper supplements and magazine titles, which had increased their workload to an unacceptable degree, and that their earnings were now “the weakest in Europe.”
Correction, May 31, 2005: This article originally claimed that journalist Alain Hertoghe had written a commentary for the Senegalese daily Le Quotidien. In fact, the op-ed was written for Yahoo France and reprinted by Le Quotidien, with appropriate attribution.