The Magazine

My E.U. Vacation

From the June 13, 2005 issue: What I learned reading the European constitution on a French beach in the Caribbean.

Jun 13, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 37 • By P.J. O'ROURKE
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts


THE FRENCH REFERENDUM on the E.U. constitution was a story that demanded to be viewed and understood from a thoroughly European perspective, so I went on vacation. Guadeloupe, in the Caribbean, is a full-fledged département of France. Here the European Union could be contemplated as the socio-politico-economic masterwork of a civilization, an edifice of human hope. And never mind that previous attempts to unify Europe by Hitler, Napoleon, and Attila the Hun didn't work out, it had been a cold, rainy spring in New England.

At passport control there were two lines. One official sat complacently in a booth doing nothing until all the E.U. citizens had been processed at another booth by a second official who, in turn, sat complacently doing nothing until the first official had finished. When, at last, the first official examined a non-E.U. passport he walked across the aisle to the second official's booth, borrowed the visa stamp, walked back, stamped the passport, and returned the stamp to his colleague. He did the same thing for each subsequent passport. At Customs, on the other hand, there were no officials.

All around the island billboards read "OUI" or "NON." They were equal in number and identical in color and typography. The fairness doctrine debates of America must have hit home in the E.U. Obviously rigorous, uniform rules on campaign media had been instituted. I mentally composed several indignant paragraphs about how John McCain will be advocating this soon in the United States before I noticed the billboards were advertising a cell phone company. Say "NON" to service charges, "OUI" to free minutes.

Real pro and con referendum posters had to be looked for. They were on special hoardings outside of schools and municipal offices where pasting up of expressions of free speech was officially sanctioned. Campaign rhetoric had a certain subtle, European sophistication. At least I guess so. The slogan on one "Oui" poster was "L'Europe--a besoin de notre." According to the dictionary I bought for high school French, this translates as "The Europe--to, at, in, on, by or for need, want or necessity of ours."

Guadeloupe is a volcanic island of soaring, majestic beauty upon which the French have turned their backs to build everything as close as possible to the damp-spritzed, wind-butted beaches with sand the color of Buick fake wood trim and a profusion of foot-piercing volcanic rocks. Also, what's French for "Every litter bit hurts"? Some of the older buildings have a limbo-party-at-the-Phi-Delt-House charm. They will be torn down as soon as the French economy finally revives and more reinforced concrete is poured in the European Bauhaus style. Form follows function. The function is to grow tropical mold.

That said, Guadeloupe's main city, Pointe-à-Pitre, is nice enough, with no glaring slums, no glaring locals, and only the Caribbean minimum of starving stray dogs. Plenty of new Citroens, Peugeots, and Renaults grace the traffic jams although Guadeloupe's per capita GDP is only $8,000. The people are sleek and fashionably dressed. The streets are well-swept by the standards of the tropics and well-paved by the standards of New York. Some gang graffiti are visible but only in easily reached places where paint can be sprayed without ruining school clothes. Guadeloupe seems like a swell place to be poor--if poor is what you like to be.

Perhaps the benign and comfortable atmosphere is a result of French culture and values, such as those the French imparted to Haiti. More likely it's the result of the large subsidies evident in the excellent road system that extends to every place on the island including places no one goes. And Guadeloupe has more impressive government buildings than an overseas département with a population of 450,000 could need, enough for a minor European country (which France, now that it's rejected the E.U. constitution, has arguably become).

As beach reading that constitution fulfills one criterion--it's 485 pages long. And Danielle Steel could not worsen the prose style: "The institutions of the Union shall apply the principle of subsidiarity as laid down in the Protocol on the application of the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality." Every aspect of European life is considered in exquisite detail, vid. Annex I, pages 403 and 404, clarifying agricultural trade regulations for "edible meat offal" and "lard and other rendered pig fat."

I slathered myself in Bain de Soleil and spread my towel between pumice and discarded Gauloises packs. Timing 10 pages of attentive reading, I calculated that it would take 17 hours and three minutes to peruse the full document, by which time I should be quite tan.