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Chirac's Failure To Lead

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By David Ignatius
Monday, May 30, 2005

BRUSSELS -- France's stunning rejection Sunday of a new European constitution was, most of all, a noisy protest against the disruptive, leveling force of economic globalization. You could see that in television images of the "no" voters as the result was announced -- burly arms raised in the air, fists cocked -- as if by rejecting a set of technical amendments to European rules they could hold back a threatening future.

And you could see the result on the faces of the losers -- glum establishment politicians being interviewed after the vote, trying to put a brave spin on a devastating defeat. For this no vote had been opposed by nearly all the luminaries of the French political class in both the socialist and conservative parties.

It was a no that resonated on many levels: a rejection of the document and the wider Europe it came to symbolize, a rejection of a market-driven way of life that's taken for granted in America, and above all a rejection of President Jacques Chirac, who tried to trick and cajole France into embracing the realities of the global economy, rather than forthrightly explaining them.

Fear of the future is always a powerful political force, and one that often has unfortunate consequences. And it's hard in this case to see much positive coming out of the French no. Europe will go on as before, but European politicians will be tempted to waste even more time soft-pedaling the fact of global competition rather than helping their people adapt and change.

Chirac will be a chief victim of Sunday's vote, and he richly deserves the scorn that will be shoveled his way. His mistake was far larger than what commentators were citing Sunday night: his decision to put the constitution to a vote even though that wasn't technically necessary. Chirac's real failure was his inability over two terms as president to level with the French people about the changes that are needed to protect the way of life they cherish. He played games with economic reform -- tiptoeing up to the edge and then pulling back at any sign of public displeasure.

Living in France for four years, I came to appreciate what a wonderful country it is, with a quality of life that is truly the envy of the world. Not surprisingly, it is also an intensely conservative country, for all its reputation for liberality. Whatever their class, age or political orientation, French people want to conserve what they've got. They want to maintain inflexible management and labor unions, six-week vacations, a 35-hour workweek -- and also to be a growing, dynamic, entrepreneurial economy. Chirac never had the guts to tell the French they couldn't have it both ways. He never explained that rigid labor rules had led to a high unemployment rate, currently 10.2 percent.

The French could use a Bill Clinton, whose most powerful theme as president was his 1996 campaign slogan of building "a bridge to the 21st century." Clinton assured American workers that he felt their pain about outsourcing and global competition -- and so would provide the training and other help for people to find jobs in the new economy. He never pretended that workers could opt out of competition. Chirac was never able to sound that positive theme in his "yes" campaign.

The most interesting potential successor to Chirac is the ambitious man for all seasons, Nicolas Sarkozy. In his comments Sunday night, the conservative party leader was at least being realistic -- insisting that with the constitutional referendum, the era of French immobilism must end. He was quoted in this week's Economist voicing this inescapable truth: "The best social model is the one that gives work to everybody. It is not, therefore, our own."

French are suspicious of "Anglo-Saxon" ideas, but they would do well this morning to consider the case of Britain and Europe. The British held back from the original European Economic Community in the 1950s because they saw joining this larger Europe as a symbol of their own failure and weakness. But they came around and applied for membership -- whereupon French President Charles de Gaulle vetoed their application in 1963. Still, the British kept coming, over bitter opposition from their own conservatives, left and right, because they knew that embracing Europe was the only way forward. They finally found a balance between a European common market and their own political and cultural identity.

The French people are right to worry about the future. With their current economic structure, they'll never make it. Saying no to Chirac is understandable, but to prosper in the 21st century, the French will soon need to say yes to a politician who tells it straight, and helps them build their own bridge to the future.

davidignatius@washpost.com


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