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France votes no

May 30, 2005

French voters rejected the European Constitution yesterday in a referendum by a pretty decisive margin: 55% opposed, 45% in favor. Pollsters had been predicting this outcome for a while, so the returns came as no surprise; now begins the tussle over why the constitution was rejected. The New York Times [free subscription required] attributed the result to economic issues:

The debate had been colored by fear of the mythical “Polish plumber,” the worker from recent European Union members from the East who is increasingly free to move West and willing to work for lower pay than Frenchmen. … The schism was borne out in and around Paris, where wealthy neighborhoods seemed to vote yes, while poor neighborhoods voted no.

This kind of diagnosis is characteristic not just of the New York Times, but of a general tendency in our present-day public commentary on political behavior that tends to reduce people’s actions to their economic interests. While not exactly dismissing economic factors, I’d like to suggest that something else is going on in Europe. The debate about the European Constitution is primarily a debate about identity, and principally concerns the way that issues (including economic issues) are framed. As such, the French rejection of the European Constitution reflects not the victory of economic self-interest over supranational principles, but the victory of a nationalist framing of the issues over a supranationalist framing.

Consider the “Polish plumber” issue; instead of being framed as a net gain in economic efficiency for the European Union as a whole, or as an opportunity for French plumbers to retool or to rethink their vocations, what is striking to me is that it’s framed in nationalist terms: the mythical plumber is Polish, i.e. “not one of us Frenchmen,” and so his economic gain is “our” economic loss. It is this framework that is at issue in the campaign. After all, “nationalism” isn’t a policy or a group of policies; it’s a kind of conceptual framework, a rhetorical grab-bag of symbols and allusions that politicians can draw upon to justify certain courses of action rather than others. So the anti-Constitution forces rode to victory by successfully deploying these nationalist images, yoking together a coalition of people in a two-stage process: first, “we” are French and “they” are not; second, opening up to economic competition hurts “us” and helps “them.”

So why did the richer neighborhoods vote yes? I’d posit that it’s the same identity-construction process, but with a different outcome: they voted yes because the framework that structures their daily lives is a “European” one. Somewhere along the line, these people have learned to think of themselves as “European,” possibly through their involvement in international educational exchange programs or through engaging in more cross-border economic activity; regardless, the point is that their interests have been framed using a supranationalist vocabulary. Hence, their support.

If the European Union wants to move forward with its Constitution, it should learn a lesson from the early constructors of the postwar transatlantic community: as part of the Marshall Plan legislation, the United States Congress mandated that recipients of reconstruction aid be informed, as often as possible, where that aid was coming from. All over postwar Europe one could see graphics and publicity posters and the like that made it extremely clear that goods were being provided under the auspices of the Marshall Plan, and being provided by the United States to its fellow “Westerners.” The net effect of this was to introduce a novel way of framing people’s identities into their everyday experiences: the United States is providing us with these goods through the Marshall Plan because we are all part of “the West” together. Such public relations work delivered the most enduring impact of the Marshall Plan: a reconfiguration in the way that people conceptualized their interests, and thus constructed the interests of their country. The European Union needs to do something similar, so that the opposing nationalist frame can be replaced by a frame that points in a different, more supranational, direction.

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Patrick Thaddeus Jackson is Professor of International Studies in the School of International Service, and also Director of the AU Honors program. He was formerly Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of International Relations and Development, and is currently Series Editor of the University of Michigan Press' book series Configurations: Critical Studies of World Politics.