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France's Political Rift

The close vote in September on the Maastricht Treaty exposed the depth of discontent with the country's political establishment

By Michele BruleMichele Brule is associate director of Brule Ville Associes, Viroflay, France. This article is excerpted from the Public Perspective, November/December 1992, a publication of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, University of Connecticut. / December 9, 1992



WHO are those French people who nearly capsized the Maastricht Treaty in September, after the warning shot fired by the Danes last June? Those who voted "no" are disproportionately farmers and workers, whereas managers, the professions, teachers, and businessmen were heavily in favor of Maastricht. Those with the highest levels of formal education also gave strong backing. Two-thirds of those who pursued their studies beyond the age of 21 said "yes" to the treaty.

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In terms of party ties, the "no" side got 90 percent of the votes of the Communists and 90 percent of the extreme right. At the other pole, 80 percent of Socialists went with President Francois Mitterand in favor of Maastricht.

But the real dividing lines seem to have been psychological rather than political or sociological. The true boundary between the France which said "yes" and the one which said "no" runs between those who look to their future with confidence and those who are fearful about it.

Given this, it becomes easier to understand why the outcome was so close. For those French people who live in anxiety, the coming together in favor of a "yes" to Maastricht of the major parties of the left and right, who have governed France for 20 years, altered the vote's meaning. The question was no longer whether one approved the text of the treaty (obscure enough to discourage the best efforts at understanding it), but whether one trusted the established leadership.

Public anxieties are growing. Twenty years ago, the unemployed in France numbered 300,000; today they are officially 3 million, not counting those benefiting from the so-called "social treatment of unemployment" - early retirement, for instance. Among the tasks they have assigned to their government, the French give highest priority to improving the employment situation, which explains their dissatisfaction with the way the country is being run.

We can thus understand how a cause as popular on paper as European unity could come to divide the country into equal halves - in spite, or perhaps because, of the near-unanimous support it obtained from the political elites.

For some years now, the rift has been widening between the French people and their political rulers. Symptoms of this rift include an increase in nonvoting and the rise of protest parties. During the 1980s, the traditional parties - Communists and Socialists on the left, Gaullists and UDF on the right, have seen their "market share" slip from 90 percent of the vote to 60 percent. The ecologists and Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front have benefited from their decline.

THE failure to bring new blood into the leadership of the major parties is one frequently advanced explanation of why the reestablished parties are in retreat. Another is the lessening of differences in ideas and programs among them - since the Socialists were converted to the market economy.

But this time, the no-confidence vote of Sept. 20 was not addressed only to the political leaders. The whole establishment had joined the political leaders in trying to sell the French on the merits of the Maastricht Treaty.

The way the European Community's bureaucracy works in Brussels also contributed to the opposition to the treaty. The leading voices in France in favor of the European cause - Jacques Delors, president of the Brussels Commission, and Simone Veil, ex-president of the European Parliament - were so amazed by attacks on their conception of Europe during the campaign that their irritation bordered on intolerance.

They might have been better advised to blame the opacity of the Community's institutions, where everything is discussed in expert committees. Little ever filters out from these debates. On a subject as crucial as common agricultural policy, the public never was informed of the reasons and circumstances that led to changes in a policy that had proven too burdensome for the Community's finances.

We should also ask about the role of the European Parliament, a "trompe l'oeil" parliament, without the power to propose or pass laws, to vote the budget of the Community, or to control the actions of the de facto executive, the Brussels Commission.

At the national political level, were there any victors in the Maastricht vote? Mr. Mitterrand, the president of the Republic, has seen his popularity rise a little, but his goal of durably dividing the right-wing opposition has not been achieved. The opposition will go to the March 1993 legislative elections in a position of strength.

The Gaullist leader, Jacques Chirac, saw his recommendation of a "yes" vote rejected by a majority of Gaullist voters. Still, he managed after the vote to bring back into the fold his party's chief dissidents, Charles Pasqua and Philippe Seguin. And his support of the "yes" side safeguards his chances with the center voters, who count for so much in a presidential election run-off ballot.

The great merit of the intense political debate instigated in France by the referendum of Sept. 20 is that it brought into the open all the imperfections of the European construction. It has reminded the political leadership that a great project of this nature cannot be elaborated successfully without the informed consent of the people.

Given this, the true victor in this vote may perhaps be said to be Charles de Gaulle. He banked on a recourse to referendum to maintain contact between government and governed, thus avoiding any drift toward bureaucratic or technocratic rule.