Everyone agrees that the French referendum on Sunday that rejected the proposed European Union (EU) constitution by 55 percent was a big event. But how big, for what reason, and whither it points Europe, remains enclouded by a storm of ideological hopes and projections.
After every major election, its meaning is immediately subject to mixed explanations. After our 2004 presidential elections, President Bush's victory was attributed to the gay marriage issue, Mr. Rove's amazing get-out-the-vote mechanism, Kerry's ineffective campaign, the public's disinclination to change horses during a war, Democratic Party urban secularism, rebounding jobs, Swiftboat Vets for Truth, the sheer likeability of George W. Bush, the sheer unlikeability of John Kerry and every reason in between.
Not only is objective truth probably not discernable in such circumstances, but most of the commentators and players had vested interests in pushing one explanation or another.
Even before the French vote, certain public attitudes were undeniable. The French were loudly concerned about losing their control over their cushy labor and welfare entitlements. French socialists -- and others -- didn't want to compete in "anglo-saxon" free markets.
Another version of this concern has been the failure of Jacque Chirac -- in office 10 years -- to even begin explaining to the French that they cannot forever enjoy high social benefits as they become ever less productive and hardworking. Beyond his specific shortcomings, Chirac's current unpopularity, stories of corruption and his famous verbal sneakiness combined to make him a poor salesman for the constitution.
Although not directly related to the constitution, the anticipated admission of Muslim Turkey into the E.U. was broadly mentioned as a concern. But it was not clear to what extent the "Turkish question" was driven by the fear that Turkey's low wages and relative poverty would send Euros to Turkey, or by the fear that Turkish entry would send more Muslims to Europe.
Some French commentators were quick to note with distress the high percentage of younger French voters who opposed the constitution. This was alternatively analyzed as either young people not understanding the importance of the great post-WWII European centralization project, or that they simply take it for granted. Those different explanations point to starkly different -- almost opposite -- long-term implications of the vote.
If there is a consensus in the aftermath of the vote, it can be found on the lips of almost the entire European governing class, as epitomized in the words of the Belgian Prime Minster Guy Verhofstadt: "The result should not be considered as a vote against Europe. The French voted against this text of the EU constitution. The motivation of a lot of opponents shows that the French do not want less but more Europe."
Similarly, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero proclaimed: "We must take note of the discontent expressed in this vote and redouble our efforts to explain that this constitution enshrines the rights and freedoms of Europeans as our social model."
Meanwhile, the remorselessly hopeful Italian Foreign Minister, Gianfranco Fini, defended the constitution, offering the odd assertion that the now-vetoed document is "still an efficient instrument." I suppose it is such cheerful blindness to grim reality that has given the Italians their beautiful souls.
The European elite simply refuse to consider the possibility that the peoples of Europe, when given a rare chance to express themselves on the topic, simply want to keep the European continent of nations for which they have been living, fighting and dying for more than a thousand years.
We American commentators are equally prone to project our ideologies onto our interpretations. Bill Kristol thinks he sees in this invigorating election the chance for young European "neo-conservatives" to rise to power and overturn "an arrogant, out of touch, debate stifling old regime [with] a whiff of democracy."
In a similar, if more classically stated, vein, George Will sees the election as "salutary because the constitution would accelerate the leeching away of each nation's sovereignty [which] is a predicate of self government." I hope they are both right.
But I think the Washington Post's intellectually suave David Ignatius probably caught the most certain implication of the election when he wrote that the vote "was, most of all, a noisy protest against the disruptive, leveling force of economic globalization." It may well be that in their reaction to globalization, Europeans will seize George Will's sovereignty or Bill Kristol's democratic new ideas.
But globalization and its reaction are the big facts of our era. The Islamist insurgency and terror is part of that reaction. Pat Buchanan's protectionism and American Firstism is part of that reaction. And Europe's vote Sunday is another form of the Great Reaction to globalization. In ways either benign or malignant, peaceful or violent, conservative or radical, the peoples of the world are beginning to defend their cultures against the cold, soulless intrusion of the globalizing leviathan. The struggle is only beginning. It will, in the end, transform our ways of life.