May 26, 2005

The Talking Cure

PARIS -  If the May 29 referendum on the European constitution fails, the next president of France could be Laurent Fabius. Except for the students at the University of Chicago who have attended his occasional lectures, most Americans haven’t heard of him. But at age 37 he was the youngest Prime Minister of France, and was twice elected President of the National Assembly, the main French legislative body.

Until now M. Fabius has been in favor of increased European integration. He supported the 1992 Maastricht Treaty that created the European Union, and served as a deputy in the European Parliament. Despite that past, he is the only mainstream French politician who is against the proposed constitution, which he considers too “liberal.” If the Oui wins, his political future is at risk, but if the Non carries he will probably take over a rejuvenated opposition party and be well positioned for the next presidential election.

So he is an important political leader in France. Despite his full schedule, he spent last Wednesday evening with 40 thirty-somethings who are part of a political discussion group called Vouloir La République. (I was invited as a guest along with two other foreigners.) Given the relegation of dissenters in our own country to “free speech zones,” I was relieved, and a little bit surprised that he was clearly ready for an open debate over the referendum even though some of us disagreed with his position. To put it another way, no one checked our bumper stickers before letting us in.

The evening was organized as a débat; like a “town meeting,” only smaller and unscripted. Due respect was shown to the former Prime Minister, but people asked real, challenging questions which were not filtered in advance. My question was roughly, “Henry Kissinger once asked ‘If I want to know Europe’s opinion, who should I call?’ The proposed constitution provides for a foreign minister, yet you are against it. So who will speak for Europe if the constitution is not adopted?”

His answers were often so discursive they could “drown a fish,” as the French say. But hey, he’s a politician. What impressed me was that during the three hour debate, the discussion focused almost solely on the merits of the constitution.

In fact, in the newspapers, in televised debates, and in personal discussions people here seem to actually be sticking to the topic. There are no unrelated divisive religious issues, few gross caricatures of the opposition, and no Vétérans Bateaux Swift.  There are no third-party interest groups buying TV ads or conducting targeted mailings. And while it’s not a presidential election, the stakes are just as high– probably higher – and the outcome will certainly have an impact on the nation’s politics for years to come. Even so, politicians have not resorted to the kind of unrestrained political warfare that has become commonplace in the US.

People here sometimes say that whatever is successful in America eventually comes to France. Sometimes what we export reflects our worst tendencies; McDonald’s being the classic example.  While there are plenty of things wrong with the French system, I hope for the sake of our oldest ally that the massively divisive political tactics that have worked so well for the Republican Party are not exported too. It can be refreshing to actually debate an issue.

By Will Friedman in Foreign Affairs | Permalink  | 


if the May 29 referendum on the European constitution fails, the next president of France could be Laurent Fabius.

ahaha :o) It's good to laugh sometimes...
Of course not, he won't be the next french president in France. Because the nextr president won't be a "socialist" and because the socialist candidate won't be him

Posted by: cedric | May 28, 2005 2:16:36 AM

Nice to know that a democratic political discussion with a 'politician' is possible somewhere in the world!

Posted by: Mathew | May 30, 2005 12:03:17 AM

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