Crushed in a stampede

Posted: Jun 02, 2005 12:00 AM

The stunned French elites, who can't believe their countrymen disdained their instructions to ratify the European Union constitution, now insist la belle France is merely a woman rejecting a suitor. At first she says, "non, non, non," but she will soon say "oui, oui, oui."

Not likely. It's been a long time since a Frenchman wooed with the charm of Charles Boyer, serenaded with the lilt of Charles Trenet, or murmured sweet nothings through the sensual lips of Jean Paul Belmondo. The most famous French leading man today is Gerard Depardieu, an amusing hunk who plays a clumsy suitor loveable only by default.

Americans take understandable delight in the humiliation of Jacques Chirac. The egg on his face may have been expertly cracked and perfectly sauteed, softly with butter and fine herbs, but as Humpty Dumpty learned the hard way, a cracked egg is still a cracked egg. The French voter didn't take to M. Chirac's specific recipe as the way to compete with American power, though envy and jealousy of the United States is alive, well and thriving in Paris.

Jacques Chirac, who reveled in his confrontations with George W. Bush, reckoned that leadership of the European Union was the shortest route to upstaging American leadership in the world. The growing disparity of power - political, economic and cultural - between France and the United States generates anger and envy, and was reason enough for many of the French to ratify the constitution. Reason enough, but not Frenchmen enough.

"This disparity, rather than any particular love of the Germans (who in private are still hated), is what drives the French desire for European unity," writes British author Anthony Daniels in "Understanding Anti-Americanism." He joins a number of analysts in dissecting the motives behind the goal of European integration. "Only as a united front, with their differences suppressed, if necessary by decree, can the countries of Europe, France included, compete with the United States on equal terms." (This recalls French sentiment during our Civil War, when France, already adventuring in Mexico, wanted the Confederacy to succeed in hopes that France could regain power and influence in North America.)

But the Chirac reach for power outran anti-American sentiment. When he tried to sell the referendum as a "historic responsibility," he raised more anxiety than optimism. When he characterized the referendum as democracy at work, the French voters didn't see it that way. As Paul Virilio, a French philosopher, wrote in the German newspaper Die Zeit, the appeal was to a "democracy of public emotion," a "limp consensus," an appeal to fear rather than to understanding of a document that specialists in constitutional law can barely interpret.

The French, who take pride in the clarity of their language, were asked to digest 70,000 words of obfuscating and imprecise prose, much of it barely above drivel. Lord Kerr of Kiniochard, one of its main authors, told the London Times ruefully on the eve of the referendum that the constitution turned out to be "a mess."

A French visitor to the United States was typical: He first planned to vote oui, and changed his mind when he tried to read it and learned that it would be virtually impossible to amend once ratified. He went home to vote non.

When Alexis de Tocqueville visited America in 1831 and returned to Paris to write "Democracy in America," he told his countrymen that "the first duty imposed on those who now direct society is to educate democracy." He warned of the danger of being "carried away by a rapid current," recalling the horrors of "haphazardness" spawned by the French revolution. He drew attention to the French vulnerability of adhering to general principles and ideas, "blindly and extravagantly," that may or may not work well when put into action. By contrast, he admired the American knack of drawing on "facts" and "experience" to make needed revisions and corrections.

French anti-Americanism is often linked more to French weakness than American strength. The two are not unrelated. M. Chirac basked in French adulation when he mocked American resolve in Iraq. He staked that reputation on the referendum. A good politician understands that you win some, lose some. And sometimes you lose everything.

When George W. met the French president in Brussels earlier this year, a reporter asked whether M. Chirac would receive one of the coveted invitations to Prairie Chapel Ranch. George W. replied that he was always "looking for a good cowboy." Good cowhands are hard to find, and unwary cowboys get run over by a stampede.