Year after treaty vote, France feeble in Europe

29th May 2006, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, May 28, 2006 (AFP) — One year after its voters dealt a resounding blow to the European Union's constitution, France has failed to suggest a way forward for the bloc or to draw useful conclusions from the vote, experts say.

PARIS, May 28, 2006 (AFP) — One year after its voters dealt a resounding blow to the European Union's constitution, France has failed to suggest a way forward for the bloc or to draw useful conclusions from the vote, experts say.

Paris' traditional role as a driving force in Europe was badly undermined by the May 29 vote, in which 55 percent rejected the EU text despite a 'yes' campaign backed by most of the left— and right—wing political establishment.

"France's image in Europe is one of total confusion," said Sylvie Goulard, of the Paris—based Centre for International Study and Research (CERI).

"What can be done with a country that has failed even to draw conclusions from the 'no' vote, that has not sought to turn it into something positive, a way of opening new avenues?"

With the countdown already under way in France to next year's presidential election, the chances of Paris playing a significant role in Europe until then are slim, Goulard said.

"President Jacques Chirac has been disowned (by voters, only 30 percent of whom approve of his actions) and his credibility is damaged. All of our partners are waiting to see what happens in 2007."

In December Chirac promised France would soon make "ambitious proposals" to make EU bodies more democratic and efficient —— but his government has followed through only with modest proposals on the bloc's day—to—day functioning.

A majority of French people realise the treaty's rejection damaged their country's standing in Europe —— 36 percent compared to five percent who think the vote boosted its position, a recent survey showed.

But the figures also reveal that, if asked to vote again, an even higher number would still reject the EU text. A mere one percent of 'no' voters say they now regret their choice, compared to 10 percent of the 'yes' camp.

The French 'no' was analysed partly as a protest vote against a political class seen as out of touch — an impression unlikely to have changed in a year marked by suburban rioting, mass street protests and murky political scandal.

Yet despite France's failure to draw the national consequences of the referendum, analysts agreed that it was bound to play an essential part in any future drive to re-launch the European project.

"Until the 2007 election, its partners are counting less on France — but they cannot do without it either," said Martin Koopmann, of the German Foreign Policy Institute (DGAP).

In the longer term, however, Koopmann warned France against defending at all costs "a social model that is shared less and less within Europe".

"It may not be fair to speak of isolation just yet, but it is not far off," he said, warning that France was closing in on itself and increasingly at odds with its European partners.

Pierre Defraigne, head of the Brussels branch of the French Institute for International Relations (EUR—IFRI), said the French and, later, Dutch votes against the treaty should be seen as signs of a deeper malaise.

France is "on the defensive and in a position of weakness" but it would be wrong to blame it for all of Europe's ills, he said.

"Everyone pours scorn on France — I myself regret the 'no' vote — but we could also take an honest look at things, to give ourselves food for thought."

"The debate revealed profound disagreements" on the major questions facing Europe — from trade to enlargement, political and social construction — which would have expressed themselves sooner or later, he said.

The former Portuguese president Mario Soares, writing in a guest column in the right-wing French newspaper Le Figaro, shared the same view.

While regretting that the French and Dutch referendums had paralysed European construction, he said "the current impasse facing the European Union is not only due to the constitution 'no' votes."

European leaders, he said, should also look for explanations in the "identity crisis gripping several European nations", the "challenge of adapting to enlargement" and an international situation "full of insecurity".

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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