Jim Hoagland in the Washington Post contends that “Europe’s destiny now depends on how well its leaders [mainly Chirac and Schroeder] handle defeat.” To me, Europe’s destiny depends more on how quickly it gets new leaders.
Based on a sample consisting of my wife’s French friends and colleagues, the conventional wisdom on last weekend’s referendum on the EU constitution is correct — the “oui” votes came from the center-left and the center-right (both of which would be considered leftist here); the “non” votes came from the hard left and the hard right. The constitution failed because the center didn’t hold. The center tends not to hold when the unemployment rate exceeds 10 percent.
Hoagland makes a good point when he refers back to Chirac’s re-election in 2002. That year, in the preliminary round far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen stunned the establishment by running second to Chirac, ahead of the Socialist candidate. During the run-off Chirac insisted that he had received the voters’ message of discontent — one not unlike the message they sent last weekend. However, the voters’ revulsion to Le Pen was so strong that Chirac won the run-off with roughly 80 percent of the vote. Had the election been an up-or-down vote on Chirac, he might well have lost. Nonetheless, with his landslide victory, any possibility that Chirac might indeed “get” the voters’ message disappeared. As Hoagland states:
Chirac interpreted his easy triumph three years ago over ultrarightist Jean-Marie Le Pen as a massive vote for his policies rather than a fearful rejection of Le Pen. But the fact that the hate-mongering Le Pen was in that runoff balloting at all turns out to have been the salient fact of that election, as the decision on Sunday by 55 percent of those voting to reject the E.U. document testifies.
It was difficult for the French voters in 2002 to vote for Le Pen. It was easy, this year, to simply vote “non.”