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When France Says No

Not long ago, an American political analyst compared France’s loss of influence in Europe following its “No” vote in the 2005 referendum on the EU constitutional treaty with France’s surrender in 1940. A provocative analogy, but is it apt? The collapse in 1940 revealed the fragility of France’s democracy and its loss of confidence in the country’s capacity to face outside threats. In rejecting the European constitution, France expressed its fear of, among other things, globalization.

A better analogy for the No vote was the rejection in 1954 of the treaty to establish a European Defense Community (EDC). In both cases, a major historical mistake was made. France had to a large extent initiated both treaties, had managed to get them accepted by its European partners, but in the end vetoed its own undertakings.

Why, in both 1954 and 2005, did the French – in one case the National Assembly, in the other the electorate – reject proposals that France itself had conceived? Both projects sought to construct a genuinely supranational Europe. The EDC would have created a European army, in which even German troops would have been included. The proposed defense treaty was also to be buttressed by plans for a European political community whose main features were to be defined by a constitutional commission made up of members of national parliaments. In effect, this commission would have been the precursor to the 2003-2004 Convention for the Future of Europe, which, presided over by former French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing drafted the constitutional treaty.

The political community of the 1950’s that France had persuaded its five European partners to accept was supposed to absorb both the European Coal and Steel Community and the EDC. It was to have both diplomatic and military powers, as well as a legislative assembly much like today’s European Parliament – just as the 2005 EU constitutional plan would have extended the European Parliament’s powers and created a European minister of foreign affairs.