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Posted by on Apr 17, 2005 in At TMV | 0 comments

France and the EU – a view from a stranger in the strange land

GRENOBLE, France – Last Friday marked my one year anniversary living in France as an expatriate. I’ve had the opportunity to learn the language and experience the culture from the inside. I have even added a special category to my weblog, Random Fate, called “Observations on France” to note what I see and compare it with attitudes and views that are in the US.

In a little over a month, the citizens of France will be voting on the new EU constitution. When I first moved to France, I was interested to discover the attitude towards the EU.

Strangely, the biggest impact that most people felt the EU had was the imposition of the euro. Prices are still marked in BOTH euros and francs because many still have difficulty thinking of how much something really costs when the price is in euros.

Otherwise, ask about the EU, and the response is the classic gallic shrug.

Over the past year, especially this last November, I’ve had several political discussions with my colleagues here, and despite the EU flag flying in many places, I find little enthusiasm towards the EU.

The first posters I saw on the upcoming referendum on the EU constitution appeared about two weeks ago, and the most prominent feature of them was a single word in bold, capital letters, “NON!!!”

This past week, when I walked around downtown Grenoble in the pedestrian city center, I encountered a young political activist next to the 13th century church handing out the flyers that had a similar “NON!!!”

The opposition to the EU constitution seems well organized (at least in Grenoble, one of the major technology and university centers in France), while those who support a “yes” vote seem to be in the grip of a malaise possibly induced by the wholesale indifference of the vast majority here when it comes to the EU.

The negative opinion polls and organized opposition do not equal a guaranteed “no” outcome, however. The referendum on treaty that established the single currency in the EU appeared as if it was going to be defeated up until the last votes were counted.

Politics in France do not function as they do in the US. There is a much wider acceptance of the role of government in the lives of citizens, a role that most in the US would find excessively intrusive, but which is here regarded as how government is supposed to care for the welfare of society.

Deciding factors here are not the same as they are in the US, and the time it takes for changes in opinion to show up in the polling data is longer. The day after French President Jacques Chirac appeared on television in a remarkable, open discussion with citizens (remarkable when compared to the incredibly stiffly scripted “events” in the US) the polls appeared to indicate no change in opinion, with the outcome still “non.”

The US based reporting that I have seen has missed both the nature of Chirac’s arguments, and the usual, apparently indifferent reaction of the French citizenry to the arguments he made.

Despite the popular perception of the French character, it has been my experience that they are actively repulsed by emotional arguments used in politics. Don’t get me wrong, they actively enjoy arguing politics here, but as soon as you make an argument that appeals to the gut rather than the head, you have lost the argument in their eyes.

Does this mean they are eminently logical?

No. For the weights they assign to different factors that have to be balanced against each other are very much affected by their feelings, and in most cases the weighting is actually determined emotionally, not that they would ever admit it!

This results in what in the US would be thought of as an extremely delayed reaction to events, making instant opinion polls deceptive to the outside viewer.

So, in the end, even though the polls look like Chirac had no effect on public opinion after his televised discussion of the EU constitution, don’t be surprised if another razor-thin victory is pulled out by the government in favor of the EU, as was done in the case of the common currency.

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