Why The French Vote Was Bad For America

Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

June 1, 2005

The humiliating political defeat inflicted on French President Jacques Chirac on Sunday—when 55 percent of voters rejected his appeals to support a new constitution for the European Union—has left more than a few Americans beaming with satisfaction. Even before the referendum, The Weekly Standard’s William Kristol speculated that a no vote could be a “liberating moment” for Europe. After the ballots were counted, the American Enterprise Institute’s Radek Sikorski concluded that the result would be “quite good for transatlantic relations,” because it weakened “the most anti-U.S. politician in Europe.”

American glee at the sight of Chirac with mud on his face is understandable; he was, after all, the leading opponent of the Iraq war and has long championed a Europe capable of serving as a counterweight to U.S. power. But Americans should hold their applause, which they may soon come to regret. That’s because the eclectic group of angry French leftists, populists, nationalists, and nostalgics who opposed Chirac and the constitution had very different—in fact, precisely opposite—reasons for doing so than the Americans who cheered them on. In other words, if you didn’t like French policies before Sunday, you’re going to like them even less now.

It should be noted from the start that the major reason for recent American anger at Chirac—his opposition to the Iraq war—had absolutely nothing to do with his defeat. (If anything that remains one of his few redeeming qualities in the eyes of many French.) Indeed, the quick choice of former Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin—who led France’s anti-Iraq-war campaign at the United Nations—to head the new government should quickly dispel any U.S. hopes that this aspect of French foreign policy will now change. Nor should the recent political setbacks to war opponents Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder be seen as a trend—war supporters Tony Blair, Jose Maria Aznar, and Silvio Berlusconi have also suffered at the polls in the last 15 months.

Far from a statement about Chirac’s foreign policies, the main message delivered by voters on Sunday was about the economy. And it was certainly not, as many Americans would have liked, that the French are fed up with excessive regulation, protectionism, and high taxes. Rather, the French no camp seemed to be saying it wanted more protection and regulation, not less. True, Chirac tried to defend the constitution by claiming that it would protect the French from “ultra-liberal Anglo-Saxon” economics. But voters did not believe him, and they wanted an EU constitution that made their preferences explicit. Does anybody really think that free-market reform and the defense of globalization will now become priorities of the French government?

Finally, consider the impact of the vote on another key U.S. aim in Europe: the widening of the EU to include America’s friends and allies in Eastern Europe and, eventually, Turkey. Whatever one thinks of Chirac’s sometimes condescending attitude toward so-called New Europe, he did see through EU enlargement to ten countries last year and his views on Turkish membership—in the face of strong opposition from within his own party—are downright progressive. Sunday’s vote is a huge setback to the prospect of the EU aiding the spread of democracy, prosperity, and stability to the east. Indeed, many of those who voted against the constitution did so because they do not want a wider Europe. As a result, the promised accession talks with Turkey are now up in the air.

Obviously, even a massive vote in favor of the constitution would not have solved Europe’s many problems or transformed the EU into a happily multicultural, pro-American economic dynamo. But it would be a mistake not to notice that the rejection of the constitution is a setback, rather than a triumph, for the United States and the principles that currently undergird its foreign policy. “Vive la France!” wrote Kristol, in celebrating the prospect that the constitution would go down to defeat. I hope I am proven wrong, but I suspect that a few years from now, neither Kristol nor most other Americans will look back fondly on the show of political strength by French extremists—left and right—we have just witnessed. When you find yourself cheering the triumph of nationalists, populists, and communists, suspicion is in order.