What are the French saying?

Posted: Sep 28, 2000 12:00 AM
There are those who give off just a little whiff of derision at the behavior of the French in the national plebiscite last Sunday. Gallic lordliness on all matters great and small isn't really sustained by the historical record. They began it 200 years ago with a bloody revolution followed by the dictatorship of Napoleon, the surrender to Bismarck, the bloodletting of the First World War, and the diplomatic and military ineptitude that brought on Nazi occupation.

The republic was pretty down and out when President de Gaulle jacked up its glory with the Fifth Republic. And a centerpiece of it, a seven-year term for the president of France, has now been revised at the polls. What smarted was not the rejection of the seven-year term in favor of five years, but the utter indifference of the French voting public to a civic exercise.

The reform was backed by the two principal political organs, President Chirac's Gaullist party and Prime Minister Jospin's Socialist party. These antipodean political entities had engaged in cohabitation (the French word for it) for three years. President Chirac had committed one of those great political blunders, absolutely counting on one result, and begetting a different one. (Milosevic has just finished doing the same thing: calling an election in full confidence that he would win it, and then losing. President Marcos of the Philippines did it, too, calling for national affirmation, and getting thrown out of town.) Rather than ratify the call of Chirac in 1997 that the voters reaffirm him and his policies, the socialists swept in and have been sharing the bed all this time.

At least what we can do about such anomalies in government -- the thinking went -- is reduce the elongated presidential term, which was created in the image of Charles de Gaulle, who was unique. A French legislative election can take place whenever the two houses vote for it or when the president decrees. The result of this is that even with a set five-year term, there is no guarantee that, in the future, government will be any less incestuous than it is today. But the French would have better protection against such afflictions as 14 endless years of President Mitterrand, marked by scandal and corruption, and an hauteur that only de Gaulle could realistically get away with.

What happened, of course, was that 70 percent of the French voters didn't bother to express themselves on the issue. Those that did leaned overwhelmingly in favor of the reduced term, by a 3-1 majority. But the impression left isn't that the republic engaged in a sophisticated act of reform. Rather, that the French voting public is overwhelmingly unconcerned with political arrangements. This reflects, in part, disillusion with Chirac's alleged involvement in a payoff scandal and the derivative involvement of Jospin in failing to publicize it.

The reaction to the vote is at several levels. The first is disgust over French political irresponsibility. Slate's June Thomas quotes the post-mortem by Eric Dupin in the left-leaning "Liberation." M. Dupin sees the end of "big-table politics," genuine public concern over the disreputable state of politics and politicians, and the devaluation of the presidency itself. He intoned:

"Voters take part in the electoral process because they want to affirm their membership in a political community. The weakening of this feeling leads to the collapse of democracy. A sort of civic consumerism develops where voting becomes discretionary rather than a matter of duty. ... Election Sundays have moved from the era of religious devotion to that of the shopping trip."

Americans are naturally reluctant to correlate the size of the vote with the health of the republic, but eyes are of course turned on the structural leverage of the political plebiscite. Coming up immediately in Denmark is the vote on whether to ratify the substitution of the euro for the Danish kroner. What weighs in the balance is the larger question of political centralization. Everybody who is anybody in Denmark wants full-bodied association with the European federation. But there are a lot of Danes who are not members of the establishment, and they don't think it's a very good idea to let Brussels, manipulated mostly by Berlin, decide future political questions.

Meanwhile, in Great Britain, Tony Blair has said he would live up to the promise of submitting full membership in the EU to the public at large. That means that the voters might find themselves at one and the same time voting for another term for Tony Blair and for the end of parliamentary sovereignty. The temptation would be there to reject cohabitation but exercise a preference for continued British independence, even if it means that they have to do without dear Tony.

The French always find interesting ways to say whatever it is they are trying to say, and this time is no exception.