“Pas de vacances pour les bourgeois!” (no vacation for the bourgeois) was a favorite slogan at the Sorbonne during the May 1968 nationwide revolt in France. Not supported by any established political parties (including the CPF), the movement which originally started among students who took over the universities came to include workers who occupied factories and peasants who brought them food. This eventful historical moment had a lasting worldwide effect on the generation which experienced its vitality and idealism. Although its significance was also political — the critique of unbridled productive capitalism; the doublespeak of reformist parties; opposition to the United States war strategies in Asia, the Soviet acceptance of “peaceful coexistence” with US imperialism, and the USSR’s own role in Eastern Europe — its legacy today is mostly ideological.
In contrast, May 2005 may come to have a more powerful direct political impact than May 1968 by affecting the construction of the European Union as well as challenging the project of neoliberalism which the political classes on the continent have been promoting. In the months to come, European politicians, journalists, and academics will be more preoccupied with the question of “what’s to be done?” than enjoying their summer vacation. Leftist forces likewise will have to take stock of the new political landscape resulting from the popular mobilization around the E.U. referendum as this opens new avenues as well as responsibilities. A new era of European politics seems on the verge of emerging.
Just as the tsunami in Southeast Asia found local authorities unprepared, the French “Non” to the E.U. constitutional draft threw the political classes of Europe in a state of shock. The dismay was further exacerbated by the even more resounding Dutch “Nee” three days later. Like the emperor in the Andersen tale, the voters discovered that the elites had no clothes on! Because of their smugness, there was no plan B to the rejection by two of the six founding member-states of the E.U. At the same time, the refusal by the French and Dutch populations to accept the document has re-legitimized dissent to the discourse and strategy of the European political elites and their pundits. Europeans are discussing politics politically again!
In fact, the domino effect was not long in coming. The shift in mood reflects not only a pent-up unease across Europe towards the unfolding of European unity, but more specifically an anxiety about whether the E.U. can offer protection from neoliberal globalization. Regardless of the overwhelming mobilization of resources in favor of the constitutional draft by all traditional political parties as well as practically all the established media in all countries, the majority of voters in France and Holland expressed concerns which the European elite had failed to grasp. All the elite could muster was doublespeak. Take President Jacques Chirac, for instance. A few weeks before the French referendum, Chirac tried to portray the constitution as an instrument in the struggle against “globalization promoted by an ultraliberal current.” Acknowledging fears about “this globalization carried out for the benefit of the strong.” he claimed that the text of the constitution was based on a “non-liberal logic.”
The population was not duped by the chutzpah of the president. A reading of the document shows that the text mentions “competition” forty-seven times and “the world market” seventy-eight times wheras phrases such as “social progress” and “unemployment” are either ignored or barely touched upon. By defeating the proposed constitution, the majority declared that — contrary to what they were told by the President of the Republique, the political parties represented in the National Assembly (except for the Communist Party and the rightist Front National), and the media — they did not feel that the proposed constitution, which in fact would make neoliberalism constitutional, could protect their social standard or identity.
In spite of the portrayal of societies on the continent as depoliticised by preoccupation with individualism, we see activated people participating in the political life of their countries. The French and Dutch results had immediate repercussions. Until then, even the normally E.U.-sceptic Danish population had tilted towards a comfortable “yes” in their scheduled referendum in September. But following the outcome in France and Holland, opinion polls showed that a majority of Danes would now vote “Nej.” A similar tendency spread to countries like Luxembourg, Ireland, and Portugal. Even in so-called “new Europe,” the mood in the Czech Republic and Poland has become less enthusiastic for the European project. In a non-member country like Norway, opinion polls reveals that recent support for seeking E.U. membership has now reverted to opposition to it.
In England, the Blair government, which assumes the chairmanship of the EU for the next six months, simply postponed (cancelled?) the British referendum which, according to most informed opinion, would have led to a victory for the Eurosceptics. This move conflicted with the French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. The two had agreed at a crisis meeting that the process of ratification should go on regardless of the negative results in a few member-states. The fact that only ten out of the twenty-five governments of the Union had even promised to submit the constitutional project to a popular referendum strengthened lingering doubts as to the democratic procedure in the E.U. construction. Now, the constitutional project will be shelved for the foreseeable future, and a break will be put on the accession of new members (i.e. Turkey). At the same time, increased acrimony between governments (Britain versus France) blaming each other can be expected.
At the level of civil society, the incorporation of Eastern European countries in the union as well as the envisioned membership of Turkey (championed by the US as a pawn in its Middle East strategy) has indeed fuelled a certain xenophobia and rightwing nationalism. Apprehension of the working classes and the rural populations towards neoliberalism promoted by the decision-makers is what primarily motivates the challenge to the European construction in its present form. In both France and the Netherlands, opposition to the constitution was strongest among workers, peasants, the poor, the young, and the excluded. Labor market deregulation, of which outsourcing of jobs and cheaper labor from Eastern Europe are but two aspects, has given rise to legitimate concerns at a time of creeping economic depression.
The failure of the traditional parties to clearly discuss economic implications of the centralization of power blurs in the public consciousness any distinction among different formations. On the left, the social-democratic parties as well as the Greens are losing touch with the concerns of their constituencies who voted against the constitutional project. On the question of European integration, the differences between the established right and left have become nebulous. Even though they may profess to have different dreams, most people see them as sleeping in the same bed! The result is not only a loss of credibility for the established left among the popular classes but also a loss of legitimacy for the political system.
Does the present political scene then represent a déjà-vu in the history of Europe? The answer is both yes and no. During the 1930s, feeling threatened by a strong labor movement, the European political elites reached for nationalism in an attempt to shelter their societies from the workings of liberal capitalism. Protectionism resulted in a “beggar-thy-neighbor” strategy. Ultimately, competitive export of unemployment contributed to setting the stage for the Second World War. In contrast to that period, the past decades have been characterized by an acceptance of the rules of neoliberal globalization and a relatively low degree of militant opposition. Feeling free from the constraints of class confrontation, the chosen course of the ruling elites has been one of adjusting domestic societies to fit the demands of global capitalism — i.e., in Greg Albo’s apt formulation, a “beggar-thy-working class” strategy.
How are the referenda on the constitution regarded across the Atlantic? Surprising as it may seem, the neoconservatives in the United States rejoiced at the French “Non.” (The thought that the French government was punished at all, after its opposition to the Iraq War, must have been gratifying. Payback time had arrived!) For William Kristol, “this was a moment of hope — for the prospects for a strong, pro-American, pro-liberty, more or less free-market and free-trade, socially and morally reinvigorated Europe.” His enthusiasm leads him to exclaim: “Vive la France!” However, this is a short-sighted wishful thinking about the “French Spring.” Pace Kristol, the constitution was perceived by European voters as an attempt to preempt a return to Keynesian macroeconomics or other alternatives by removing monetary, financial, and industrial policy-making from the competence of national governments. In other words, what happened was a rejection of the dogma of global neoliberalism which the American political elite and specifically the Bush administration stand for. In politics as well as in financial markets, perception is important.
In May 1968, one of the popular graffiti at the Sorbonne was “Be Realistic, Demand the Impossible!” In May 2005, refusing the determinism of neoliberalism, the French voters gave forceful support and direction to the “alterglobalization movement” whose rallying cry has been “Another World is Possible!”
Jacques Hersh is Professor Emeritus at the Research Centre on Development and International Relations, Aalborg University. Ellen Brun is Researcher on Development Issues and International Relations at Aalborg University Centre, Denmark. They have co-authored many books and articles, including Socialist Korea: A Case Study in the Strategy of Economic Development published by Monthly Review Press (1976).