Daniel Gordon, from Edge Hill University, thinks about the upcoming EU referendum… Brexit or no Brexit? and what is happening to Europe?
On the eve of the UK’s EU referendum there’s a comparison from recent French history going round and round in my head that I think might shed some light on where we are headed today. Of course, history never repeats itself exactly, but both the parallels and the contrasts are striking.
Ironically in view of the unreflective assumptions about British exceptionalism that lie behind the ideology of Brexit, British politics in 2016 is starting to turn into a darkly dystopian version of French politics circa 2005. For David Cameron, read Jacques Chirac: smoothly reassuring in his complacency, a contradictorily pragmatic and relatively moderate conservative from the country’s traditional governing elite, in power for some time, calls a referendum on a European matter. Like his predecessor Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, principal author of the proposed European Constitution on which the referendum is held, Chirac sees this as an opportunity to defuse popular Euroscepticism and revive democratic legitimacy for the European project. Just like Cameron, in view of the broad consensus among all the major parties of centre-right, centre and centre-left on matters European, Chirac thinks the referendum will be a walkover. And unlike in pre-Cameronian Britain, in Chirac’s France referendums are a perfectly established part of the political repertoire: he is a Gaullist after all.
Little does either man suspect quite what demagogic demons he has unleashed. For the referendum provides an ideal opportunity for the surfacing of a wave of deep popular anger on issues at once related to, yet also tangential from, the question on the ballot paper. Yet whereas in Britain this anger is channelled by the hard right, in France this anger is channelled by the hard left. The through-the-looking-glass version of Leave.EU is thus the loose alliance of anti-capitalists for a No vote around Communist Party leader Marie-George Buffet, alter-globalisation pin-up boy José Bové and everyone’s favourite Trotskyist postman with a history degree, Olivier Besancenot of the Revolutionary Communist League. Like, but to a greater extent than, British Eurosceptics of the Right, or indeed their ideological cousins in the miniscule British Lexit campaign today, the French Eurosceptics of the Left profess their love of Europe in some abstract metaphysical sense, while hating what we might call ‘actually existing Europe’. Even as the British Eurosceptics of the Right continue to denounce the EU for being too French and too socialist, the French Eurosceptics of the Left denounce the EU for being too British and too economically liberal. Yet unlike the British Eurosceptics, the French Eurosceptics’ claim to be concerned about something beyond national self-interest is more than rhetorical flim-flam: these lefties genuinely are universalist internationalists – but while certainly stopping well short of calling for the breakup of the EU, they don’t really approve of any EU capable of existing this side of la lutte finale. Thus counter-arguments from the centre-left that free competition has been in previous European treaties since 1957, rather than being a dastardly new innovation of the constitution-that-never-was in 2005, cut little ice with them.
But alone, the French far left cannot muster a majority even in the propitious circumstances of a referendum against a rightwing government, just as UKIP alone are incapable of commanding a majority of opinion in Britain in 2016. They need fellow travellers or allies of circumstance from within the political establishment. For Gisela Stuart, read Laurent Fabius: a politician hitherto at the very core of the pro-European, just-left-of-centre wing of the establishment has a conversion on the road to Damascus. Fabius breaks ranks with his colleagues, briefly and unconvincingly reinventing himself as a left populist striking out against the system. Or, given that Fabius’ motivation was transparently as a springboard for a run for the Socialist nomination for the 2007 presidential elections, perhaps we should say: for Boris Johnson, read Laurent Fabius.
Unlike in Britain in 2016, the way the referendum campaign is conducted is much more benign: this is of course the world before the 2008 crash. While there is a certain amount of scare-mongering on both sides, and the No camp get criticised for their apparent lack of a ‘Plan B’, the debate is on the whole characterised by a high level of informed public debate – in part because, despite the rise of Euroscepticism in France since Maastricht, there is a higher base-level understanding of EU affairs in a country with a history of interest in European unity as an idea rather than a financial transaction. The average person in the street might have mixed feelings about Europe, but they do know that such things as elected MEPs exist. On the No side, people form committees at local level and get seriously self-educated about the issues, in contrast to the extreme anti-intellectualism of the Brexiters today (this is France, after all). In support of the No vote there is a wealth of highbrow counter-expertise flowing out from organisations and movements like Attac and the European Social Forums. Instead of Grassroots Out-style astroturfing, there is something resembling real social movements. There is heated, but not nasty, debate. No politicians are assassinated in the street (in that horrible respect, Britain today risks resembling more France circa 1934).
Nevertheless, fears about migration do enter into the debate, for reasons connected to the EU enlargement of 2004 (which ironically in view of today’s debates, let’s remember was driven enthusiastically by the UK in the face of a sceptical France). La mondialisation, voilà l’ennemi – and it comes in the shape of the ‘Polish plumber’, a metaphorical figure who comes to dominate debates as the personified antithesis of the ‘French social model’, to the extent that eventually someone ironically suggests erecting a statue to the unknown Polish plumber. This in spite of the fact that actual Polish plumbers are denied the opportunity to ply their trade on French bathrooms for a seven year transitional period, with the predictable consequence that they head for Britain instead. But this debate is largely framed in terms of unfair undercutting, of le dumping social, not in terms of national identity.
Sure, as well as the nonistes de gauche, campaigning separately for a No vote is Jean-Marie Le Pen, plus a hard core of Take Back Control-style hard right souverainistes like Philippe De Villiers. They even stoke Islamophobic fears about a potential future Turkish accession (at a time when Turkey Is Joining The EU was something approaching a real possibility rather than the fantasy it has become in 2016). But a broad mass of left-wing voters convince themselves that theirs is a pure non de gauche, unsullied by the non raciste of National Front voters terrified of Turks. And in numerical terms, the leftists are correct: the leftwing No indeed makes up most of the No votes, and establishes hegemony over the arguments. The votes are counted: 55% for No, with a geographical contrast of results that to some extent parallels the nascent culture war underway in the UK today: better-off areas vote yes, marginalised ones vote no, but with the difference that in 2005 leftwing intellectuals and manual workers are on the same side. The political message that emerges from the result is emphatically not a nationalist one, but of a blow struck against neoliberalism. The hard left claims victory and the Internationale is sung.
But what was the medium-term result of their moment in the sun? The real-world consequences of France’s non turned out to be slim in terms of EU policy, yet far-reaching in the nature of French politics. For sadly this was when rightwing populism of a sort eerily recognisable to us today took shape in France. The political beneficiaries of the ‘no’ vote were not the people who had shaped it. In the 2007 presidential election, Besancenot, Buffet and Bové stood against each other and got 4%, 2% and 1% respectively. Nor were they Laurent Fabius, who finished last behind both Ségolène Royal and Dominique Strauss-Kahn in the 2006 Socialist primary. There was one clear beneficiary of post-2005 populism, and his name was Nicolas Sarkozy. Casting aside Chirac and his acolytes, Sarkozy, in so many ways a comfortable product of the right-wing French establishment, skilfully used both the No vote of 2005 and the civil disorder that followed later that year in France’s banlieues to reinvent himself as the tough-talking man of the people who would clear out the banlieues with a high-pressure hose and sweep out the complacency of the old establishment. Like Boris Johnson, another charismatic individual whose ruthless ambition seemingly knows no bounds, Sarkozy used his immigrant ancestry both in order to signal his semi-outsider status, and as a paradoxical cover for opportunistically inconsistent anti-immigrant rhetoric. Simultaneously promising to shield ordinary voters from the ravages of globalisation, yet be unashamedly pro-work and pro-business, to establish an unapologetically ideological right while stealing some of the symbolic clothes of the French left, Sarkozy was elected president by promising to be all things to all people, arousing expectations that could not be met. He duly proceeded to disappoint them. Plumbing depths of Berlusconi-style shamelessness and anti-intellectualism that the French electorate had hitherto thought impossible in a President of the Republic, Sarkozy became an international embarrassment and achieved the rare feat of uniting France’s intellectuals in opposition to everything he stood for. This, though, provided further grist to the ‘elites against the people’ narrative embodied in Sarkozism as much as in the Govism of ‘the British people have had enough of experts’. The ‘President of the Rich’, the ‘Bling-Bling President’ spawned an industry of books about what was denounced as modern-day Bonapartism or even Petainism. De quoi Sarkozy est-il le nom?, asked philosophers like Alain Badiou. Perhaps soon they will be asking De quoi Johnson est-il le nom?.
But it did not take long for Sarkozy’s act to be rumbled by the layer of socially conservative working-class electors who had initially voted him in. Many came to see through his man of the people disguise: for some, the moment of disillusion came straight after his 2007 election victory, as the scourge of the establishment celebrated with his billionaire chums at the poshest restaurant on the Champs-Elysées and holidayed on their yachts. In pursuit of a failed attempt at re-election in 2012, Sarkozy proceeded to steer ever closer to the values of the National Front, in a process that mirrors Vote Leave’s UKIPification of mainstream Conservatism. Sarkozy came pretty close to trashing many of the core values of the French Republic, and started the process that began today’s breakup of the Schengen Zone. Yet Sarkozy’s unstable populism proved itself incapable of re-election, even faced with as an opponent as uninspiring as François Hollande (whose own failures are a subject for another day). Perhaps Sarkozy’s real legacy was the long-running series of scandals about the financing of his campaigns. From 2012 on, his disappointed electors returned to the National Front, preferring, as Jean-Marie Le Pen had once put it, the original to the copy. The National Front’s obituaries turned out to be premature, just as any written for UKIP today may turn out to be. In short, the set of events that 2005 referendum set in motion were a classic example of the historical law of unintended consequences.
So what relevance has this for the UK? Let’s bear in mind that leftwing Euroscepticism has anyway ever since Thatcherism made much less sense in the British than the French context. If you are in a country with relatively high levels of social protection, European harmonisation threatens to level down, but if you are in a country with relatively low levels of social protection, European harmonisation promises to level up. And when everyone today agrees the stakes are much, much higher – this is no mere preamble to a constitution, for the very existence of international cooperation in Europe may now be at stake – and as the prospect of a hard right Brexit draws near, the left-wing argument against an exit gets all the stronger. That’s why in Britain today some ideological soulmates of Buffet, Besancenot and Bové are stepping gingerly towards the undoubted challenge of Another Europe Is Possible as an alternative to what they realise by now is the pure fantasy of Lexit. Jeremy Corbyn’s 7 to 7.5 out of 10 enthusiasm for staying in the EU expresses what’s different about the choice facing Britain in 2016: in France in 2005, he would have given 10 out of 10 for No. But the harsh truth is that the activist left in Britain today is much weaker than it was in France – the (relatively) pro-European left is too marginal to a debate whose terms have been set by the right, and the anti-European left all but invisible to the naked eye. To put it starkly, the choice on offer on the ballot paper is not between the Europe we have and the Europe of our dreams: it is between the Europe we have and the Europe of our nightmares. For this time there is little doubt that the left wing Nos really will get drowned out by the racist Nos – and the neoliberal ones.
The moral of the story? If a decade ago left-wing Eurosceptics didn’t get what they wanted in France, despite being on apparently much more favourable terrain, it beggars belief that they could possibly get what they want in the depressing context of what Britain has become in the course of this referendum. In short, if you don’t want a future dominated by Boris Sarkozy and Nigel Le Pen, Vote Remain – and build European alliances for the future.