France: What Part of 'No' Don't They Understand?

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Opposition to the EU has shocked the French right.

A joyful No.' This was how dissident Socialist Party deputy Jean-Luc Mélenchon summed up the remarkable campaign that has developed against the proposed constitutional treaty for the European Union, the subject of a referendum in France on 29 May.

Mélenchon was speaking at a 6,000-strong meeting organised by the French Communist Party in Paris last month. It brought together as broad a platform of speakers from the left as any meeting held in France over the past decade.

And he was right. Whereas the No campaign in the 1992 referendum on the Maastricht Treaty was dominated by the nationalist and fascist right, the focus of this campaign has been opposition to neo-liberalism, driven by the belief that another Europe, and another world, is possible.

By mid-April 500 unity collectives had been set up across France by the No campaign. For the teachers, public sector workers and school students who have been fighting for months to defend their jobs and conditions, the issue is straightforward. The proposed constitution will make the dismantling of public services across the EU much easier.

At the heart of the treaty is the imperative of free competition, overriding all other considerations. Restrictions on the free movement of capital are 'forbidden'. By contrast, the principle of 'public service' appears neither as a value nor as an objective of the treaty. Instead services of 'general economic interest' are made subject to the laws of competition. This rules out state aid since it distorts competition and is 'incompatible' with the internal market. The treaty, in other words, enshrines free market capitalism as a constitutional principle.

Those who defend it argue that the constitution offers rights in return. But the rights that take precedence are those that ensure free competition. Many of the others are so vague as to be meaningless, while the right to strike is granted to workers and employers alike. If adopted the treaty would therefore make the lock-out a constitutional right.

The constitution preserves the existing undemocratic features of the EU intact. The European Parliament would still have little control over how the EU's finances are spent and the commission, rather than parliament, would retain the sole right to introduce legislation.

Much is made by the Yes camp of the right to petition the European Commission that would be granted to EU citizens. But even if a citizen were to collect the 1 million signatures required to present an issue, the commission would be under no obligation to take it into account. The constitution would also strengthen EU ties to Nato, thus limiting its independence from US policy.

The extent to which the No campaign is now dominated by the left was demonstrated by Jacques Chirac's performance at the last EU summit in Brussels, when he trumpeted his opposition to the so-called Bolkestein directive on the liberalisation of public services. The purpose of this directive is to remove obstacles to free competition in the service sector across the EU. Employees from one country, where wages are low, could be employed in another at the same rate, regardless of the social legislation in place there. It is a major attack on workers' rights.

Despite Chirac's claims to the contrary, an unfettered market remains a central aim of those behind the constitution, as José Barroso, president of the EU Commission, has made clear in his defence of the principles underlying the Bolkestein directive, and as various articles in the constitutional treaty itself amply demonstrate.

This was certainly the conclusion drawn by energy workers last month in the part of northern France where Frits Bolkestein, the former commissioner responsible for the directive which bears his name, has his second home. In protest at the EU's attack on public services they cut off his electricity.

The French left's No campaign has the same sense of positive affirmation as Seattle's message to the WTO, that 'our world is not for sale'. For the left across Europe this campaign is becoming one of the key battles of recent times. A No victory would be a victory for all those fighting neo-liberal attacks worldwide. The entire mainstream political establishment in France, from the Gaullist right to the Socialist Party, has lined up in the Yes camp. But the Communist Party, along with various left wing Socialists and Greens who oppose their parties' support for the treaty, have joined forces with the anti-capitalist left and together they are thumbing their noses at the establishment.

The campaign's ability to combine the anger of years of struggle against neo-liberal 'reforms' with the political arguments to challenge the institutions that drive them, has shown that it is possible for the left to provide effective and principled opposition to the compromises of the mainstream social democracy and at the same time to marginalise the extreme right. Whatever the outcome of the vote, there will be important lessons to draw from this.