01 June 2005

01.06.05. How in 2005 the French Saved Europe for Civilization

Editor's note: One nanometer behind the push to sustainable development and social justice lies that thing called politics, the art or science of government. It’s a never ending process of learning, communicating and adapting. As this Op-Ed piece written in the immediate wake of the French referendum rejecting the proposed European constitution.

Fifteen Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong

Or How in 2005 the French Saved Europe for Civilization

Eric Britton, The Commons, Paris, 30 May 2005.

6:30 a.m. The morning after. The radio alarm goes off. Oh my aching head!

As I woke this to the self-pitying howls and doomsday messages coming from Right and Left alike in the wake of yesterday’s referendum here in France in which a clear majority of the voters said “No” to the proposed new constitution for Europe, I suddenly was reminded of a phrase we used back in the late fifties when I was a buck private in the (US) army making the world safe for democracy.

We said, with only half a smile, that ours was a classic situation of: “The incompetent leading the unwilling to do the unnecessary”. And if ever there were a single phrase that caught the mood here today, that has to be as good as any.

The key to today’s apparent conundrum here lies in the first half of that phrase -- leadership failure.

Neither the government nor the parties of the Right were able to make a convincing case for what should have been a simple win. To the contrary, they made such a great hash out of their explanations, which they decided to tinge with a certain petulant fear-mongering, that a substantial portion of the electorate voted against the treaty simply because their supposed leaders and mentors were grossly incompetent of making their case. Air ball.

And as often happens here the apparatchiks of the Left, our dear Socialists, were unable to do any better. They shot themselves in the foot in the last presidential election three years ago when it should have been a shoo-in. And this time they did it again. It seems to be an art form over here.

The least of their problem was that they couldn’t stop bickering among themselves and hence were unable to present a united face.

But here’s the real joke: Even if they had managed to present a united front, they still would not have been able to make their point. You see, they simply can’t figure out who they are and what it is they want for their country. Right and Left in France are deeply confused. Sound familiar America?

The simple truth is that this matter of making “Europe” is serious and important business that commits the people of France to a future. Future? What future? Look. If you don’t know what is going on, you would have to be a fool to plunge into that dark space. And yesterday there were some fifteen million Frenchmen who came to the polls and said: Whoa, we better have a look before we jump.

But not all the problems were with the leadership vacuum here in the Hexagon.

The second gross agent of self-destruction was the all but comical performance and incompetence of the European institutions, the European Commission, the Parliament, the European Bank and the rest. The Great White Hope of Europe? Hardly. Their representatives wandered in from time to time with weak smiles, tepid words, and a bit of finger pointing, but they too had nothing commanding to offer. And if the European project cannot be made clear by its own leaders, well we can’t be all that harsh on the national politicians here.

The outstanding lesson was that no one trusts the politicians. And not only here.

And, or so it often goes, that nobody trusts what they see as over-paid neo-Soviet decisioncrats in Brussels whose concern for their own cushioned jobs and prerogatives far outstrips not only their commitment to but also their understanding of what “Europe” is supposed to be all about.

Hmm. Okay, it’s always great fun to whine, but is there any good news? Well happily there is plenty of it, and if we can get a good grasp of this then we are well positioned to decide as to what to do next.

For starters, the last two months of the information program and public debate was a significant first for this Republic. There has been nothing like a true citizen consultation of what Europe is supposed to be all about here over these last decades, and this too was a critical lynchpin of the leadership failure.

But this time the debate took place and the level of citizen involvement and interest was very high indeed. Everybody – quite literally – talked about it, argued, polemiced and occasionally even listened over these last weeks. And if you take into account the atrocious performance of their leaders in explicating the issues, the fact that some seventy percent of the voters actually went to the polls to place their votes on a sunny day in May is an enormous vindication for the entire process. Bingo! Democracy is alive and well in France.

Second: the polls made a clear statement. W now know that a major rethink is now needed. And the message has been sent that the citizens of France need to be directly involved in this process. I think we should be able to work with that.

And finally, there is another phenomenon working here about which we are not hearing much in the press, and that is the somewhat arcane concept of “swarm intelligence”. Defined typically as the results of collective behaviour in decentralized, self-organized systems – which sounds like a good working definition of 21st century democracy to me.

The interesting thing about swarm intelligence is its suggestion that large groups can develop a degree of cognition and even understanding of which the individual parts are not necessarily capable. Think about it. Fifteen million Frenchmen sent a message.

Alexis de Tocqueville put it this way when he contemplated the lessons, if any, that America might have for the Old World. In Democracy in America, he wrote: “In democratic countries knowledge of how to combine is the mother of all other

forms of knowledge; on its progress depends that of all the others.”

“Knowledge of how to combine “. Well, this is precisely the process that must now be engaged. All but the weirdest maniacs here know fully well that Europe is a great idea and great ideal. But someone needs to explain to us what it means. Clarity of thought and engagement of intelligence. Which is what those fifteen million Frenchmen are asking for.

Stay tuned. This is far from over. And one day it may be explained to our grandchildren how the French saved Europe for civilization.

Eric Britton is an international consultant to government and industry who has lived and worked in Paris since 1969. He can be reached at mail@ericbritton.org.


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