Could this be another French revolution, a la 1789? Yes it could, but this time the guillotine is the ballot box, as France marches toward its referendum on Sunday on whether or not to ratify the European constitution. The “non” – according to most polls – is set to win. “Oui” or “non,” the European Union has already been thrown into probably its biggest political crisis ever.

From Southeast Asia to the Middle East, from Latin America to China, from India to Russia, the European Union is widely viewed as an example and as a social project to be admired and emulated. What is very difficult for a Chinese, Indian or Thai to understand is how such a crucial decision about the bigger picture, the future of Europe – and the multipolar world – has been hijacked by internal French politics. And this in a country that is one of the founding fathers of modern, post-war Europe. There may be a rainbow of “non” – from the extreme left to the extreme right – but French popular exasperation with President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin is the main theme. It has led to the “non” equating Chirac with unbridled neo-liberalism – when Europe, compared to every other continent, is way ahead in social democracy, social protection, workers’ rights, educational infrastructure, as well as being an alternative project to the US’s social Darwinism. But Chirac is a political opportunist, thus the least credible character capable of selling the dream of a strong, politically unified Europe in a multipolar world.

The attack of the Polish plumbers

The constitution is a 482-page document (in the English version) divided into four main sections, with a total of 448 articles, plus interminable annexes and protocols. The object of endless, passionate debate, the text became a best-seller in France. “Non” voters insist the constitution is incapable of preserving the European model: instead, it is the blueprint for a European free-trade behemoth competing with the US in the arena of neo-liberal globalization.

The key “non” objection is the definition of Europe as “a highly competitive market economy,” where “competition is free and undistorted” – something that is widely interpreted as the end of European striving for social equality.

But the “non” bete noire may as well be article I-41, on the “common security and defense policy,” which states that “commitments and cooperation in this area shall be consistent with commitments under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).” This would mean that the EU is tied for life to NATO, the instrument through which the US controls the EU’s foreign policy. It is perfectly feasible to read the constitution as the EU and the US playing good-cop, bad-cop in the global arena.

It’s not so much a question of killing a European ancient regime in Brussels – enmeshed in bureaucracy and regulatory laws. The French “non” is largely a protest vote – not an anti-European vote. A federalist Europe does not exist – at least not yet. Its budget is limited to 1% of the gross national product (GNP) of the 25 member states. This means that 10% unemployment in France, for instance, is not Brussels’ fault. It’s a French problem. Sweden made a few adjustments and solved it. The “oui” camp insists a more federalist Europe would do wonders for jobs and economic growth.

More than the constitution itself, the point for legions of “non” supporters is social insecurity. This has translated into fear of the “other” – personified by the Polish plumber, the impoverished Eastern European workers who supposedly steal jobs in affluent Western Europe. But contrary to all expectations, there has been no Eastern European invasion in the three EU countries – Great Britain, Ireland and Sweden – that have fully opened their labor markets. Until now, in France, the nationalist and xenophobic right was milking the specter of immigration from the South. Now the nationalist left is milking the specter of immigration-light – from Eastern Europe.

The French always thought they were being sold a “social Europe” – where social standards would always be pushed upward, toward the highest levels of worker protection, wages and benefits. Britain has always blocked this approach. In the constitution, the “non” identifies a trend of bringing standards down to the lowest levels.

The constitution is viewed by the “non” as an attack on public services – which in France are at the heart of a very high quality of life and social solidarity. France has arguably the best medical system in the world, a metro system in Paris that is a model of efficiency, fabulous railway and postal systems, a very good, secular school system and tremendously rich cultural life – all indispensable elements of social cohesion. This entails government regulation – profitable parts of the system are always able to cover for others.

An army of black sheep 

The crucial mistake of the elites who devised European construction and integration was to largely isolate the political process from European citizens. This has led to a widespread popular perception that all that is left is the social Darwinism of the free market. The split between the ruling class and the masses couldn’t be deeper. When Chirac said that by voting “non” France would be the “black sheep” of Europe, the masses enthusiastically agreed.

Contradictions abound. When an American such as Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Washington-based Foundation on Economic Trends, praises the European dream, he talks about Europe’s preeminence in security, health, education and even scientific research. This has not much to do with catching up with the US. The “non” argue that Europe’s superior education system simply cannot be smashed for the benefit of short-term profit: this would mean Europe cannot assert itself as an alternative to the US. A key argument for the “oui” to the constitution is a strong Europe standing up to the US. It’s curious to note that most American politicians as well as corporate media – but not the neo-cons – support the “oui” (even though they complain about the popularity of precisely this “standing up to the US”).

Neo-liberalism is inevitably at the heart of the debate. The “non” says that a victory – fueled by grassroots movements and the Internet – will be a political tsunami, generating all around Europe waves and waves of social awareness. Like Bob Dylan’s “the times they are a-changin,” Europe would awake to an alternative to hardcore capitalism. It’s a very romantic idea. The “non” is trying to sell a very appealing ideal to the world: modern life not as a marketplace where everything can be bought. They genuinely believe that a “non” will lead, by popular pressure, to a radical transformation of the EU – toward social harmonization from the ground up, universal right to social services, a progressive industrial policy, opposition to all forms of neo-colonialism, the cancellation of all the South’s debt, and inevitably the end of NATO. Not by accident France’s proud motto is “liberte, egalite, fraternite.”

To the Batmobile!

Officially there’s no plan B. But EU diplomats admit to Asia Times Online that there is indeed one – devised by jurists, diplomats and think-tank researchers, just as there is a secret Franco-German plan in case of a future, hypothetical British “no.” But the other 24 EU members are still in disbelief: how can the French left demonize a treaty negotiated for five long years under a Frenchman’s watch, the aristocratic former president Valery Giscard d’Estaing? Jean-Claude Juncker, the prime minister of Luxembourg and current EU president, nailed it when he said, “Europe will happen anyway, but we would lose two decades while other parts of the world would advance, taking Europe as a model.”

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Rodriguez Zapatero eagerly joined the “oui” campaign. The first crucial effect of the “non” would be to hammer the Franco-German node – the European engine for half a century, now with Belgium and Spain attached, and reduce the European Union to a hornet’s nest of narrow interests and rivalries. It would be the triumph of the Anglo-Saxon concept of Europe as basically a huge supermarket. The Franco-German tandem always proceeded further and faster: it was left to the others to catch up. With a “non,” France loses its avant-garde position. It’s important to remember that Europe began half a century ago as an economic community – not a political union (that would be the same in the case of a future Asian union). Political union means nothing shorter than rewriting a European history of centuries of wars. So the constitution is at best a compromise. It may be flawed – but as Europe’s political and intellectual elite never tires to explain – it had to account for the mind-boggling idiosyncrasies of 25 member states. The fact that it means all things to all people leaves it open to be picked apart at will. In this open warfare between European purists and European realists, EU diplomats tell Asia Times Online that after such a hard-fought compromise involving 25 nations, there’s nothing left to negotiate: “Negotiate with whom? And on what?”

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who takes the rotating EU presidency on July 1, will have to deal with the consequences of a “non.” Panic in Brussels had even led to the idea being floated of French voters asked to vote again in 2006. The Dutch may well vote “no” as well next Wednesday. With a major difference: passionate, exalted French debate is contrasted by glacial Dutch indifference. In the Netherlands, people feel they were never consulted about their idea of Europe. They fear a loss of sovereignty – forcing the country to reconsider its leading, progressive stance on legalized abortion and euthanasia, for example. The Dutch even complain about the euro – saying the Dutch guilder was undervalued vis-a-vis the German mark. And a significant proportion fears Turkey’s admission to the EU – a specter manipulated by the extreme right not only in the Netherlands but in France and Denmark.

Ten of the 25 EU member states are holding a referendum on the constitution. Of these, only Spain has voted, in February, and only 42% of the electorate; but the “yes” got 77%. All 25 members must endorse the constitution. A “non” in France and a “no” in the Netherlands kills it – even before Euroskeptic Britain and Denmark are able to vote.

United States of what? Will the constitution lead to a United States of Europe, like the US? Definitely not. This is a hard-fought compromise between deeper political integration and preserving the rights of nation states. That’s why it can be read as either a manifesto for an European superstate or a charter for a streamlined, efficient EU. With 25 members already and more coming or on the waiting list, Brussels has to deliver. Otherwise, say the “oui,” perpetual paralysis will be the norm.

There will be collective decisions on immigration, asylum policy, the internal market, foreign trade, agriculture, fisheries and the environment. Defense, foreign policy and tax will remain national prerogatives. The executive powers of the EU president will be limited: he won’t be a George W. Bush or a Chirac. There’s a crucial opt-out clause in foreign policy – a sine qua non condition imposed by the British. But in the event of a repeat of the war on Iraq scenario, a common European policy would be inevitable – not the 2003 bitter divisions. For millions of Europeans, the dream of a social Europe that can really be a model for the rest of the world remains imperative. Who would want the dream to be crushed? Roberta Manning, professor of history at Boston College, talks of “Bush’s advisers dividing the EU over Russia” as “essential” to the neo-conservative strategy: “A unified EU that develops close ties to a democratic Russia would prove a potent obstacle to their plans. The real problem of the world today is to manage America’s decline while dealing with an ideologically driven US leadership that lives in a world of fantasy and cannot deal with the rise of China and India much less a real European Union no longer under its political control.”

Jurgen Haberms, arguably Europe’s foremost philosopher after Jacques Derrida, is certainly in favor of “conquering and civilizing capitalism.” He tells Asia Times Online that the European social model can only be defended by a politically unified Europe, way beyond the markets: “The constitution has at least the merit of offering such latitude.” For Habermas, a “non” would not mean an ungovernable EU, but the level of “immobility and impotence would delight the neo-liberals”: “Against an hegemonic neo-liberalism that associates free elections and free markets and intends to impose its views on a global scale – even if it goes solo and by the force of arms – Europe must learn to apply foreign policy by speaking with one true voice.” Habermas points out that “George W Bush will be delighted by the failure of the European constitution.”

Makes us dream

The passionate debates have been nothing short of enthralling. The French might as well vote “oui” – but without conviction. “Reluctancy to support a compromise is typical of the French temperament,” says a Parisian editorial writer. Everyone seems to agree that the EU needs to be more efficient, more democratic and more “social.” The constitution is supposed to be a small step ahead. But not enough for the angry black sheep. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, now 60, the iconic Franco-German student revolutionary leader of May 1968, is terribly worried. Danny the Red has changed colors to Danny the Green – the Green Party’s co-leader in the European parliament – but remains above all Danny the Blue, a passionate European. He fears that a “non” would be “the prelude to an attempt to impose a purely economic vision of Europe, a market vision. [Rupert] Murdoch would jump for joy.” It’s the ultimate irony that the crucial swing voters in this election are almost all of them socialists or greens: “No one has dared to tell them that we live in a world of market forces.” So what do most Europeans want? The want a European way – over welfare, over universal education and health, over containing the worst excesses of capitalism, over asserting the concept of public interest, over defending themselves without having to ask for American help. As an alternative power to a unilateral US, which insists on torpedoing the UN, a EU as a political force is needed more than ever.

France gave the world the first – and most radical – democratic revolution in Europe; the Paris Commune; a compelling denunciation of anti-semitism (the Dreyfus case); the mother of all strikes (May 1968); and the foremost blueprint for enlightened secularism. Now it may be giving a democratic lesson on how to achieve the true European dream.