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
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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.

According to the constitution, the E.U. is (or was) to have five branches of government: the European Parliament, the European Council, the Council of Ministers, the European Commission, and the Court of Justice of the European Union; plus two advisory bodies: the Committee of the Regions and the Economic and Social Committee; and four additional independent institutions: the European Central Bank, the European Investment Bank, the Court of Auditors, and the European Ombudsman. Here we have a system of bounced checks and balances.

Part II of the constitution, "The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the Union," gives us an idea of what "rights" are supposed to mean in Europe: "Everyone has the right to life." This, on a continent where there's more respect for Dick Cheney than for a fetus. The Charter prohibits "making the human body and its parts as such a source of financial gain." Botox injections will be covered by National Health. There is a "right" to "an annual period of paid leave." (I was having mine.) And a declaration that "The use of property may be regulated by law insofar as is necessary for the general interest." Lenin couldn't have put it better. What there was in this constitution that a subtle, sophisticated European could object to eluded me, as did reading the rest of it.

I was getting bored. I could go hiking in the mountains, except it was 95 degrees. I could take a refreshing dip, except the ocean was 95 degrees. Guadeloupe's painters and artisans are almost bad enough to get into the Venice Biennale. There was nothing in the stores but European stuff at European prices, and, anyway, the stores were, in European fashion, closed most of the time. I began to get American thoughts about jet skis, water park slides, and vast air-conditioned malls. Guadeloupe is lovely. However, there isn't much to do but eat. Every third building seems to be a restaurant. I chose one of the most prepossessing establishments. The Big Mac was delicious.

For some reason (and judging by the E.U. constitution, it was an elaborate one) the referendum in Guadeloupe was held a day before the referendum in mainland France. I went to a polling place at a reinforced concrete school where "Joyeux Noël" decorations still hung in the corridor, and interviewed . . . somebody. She seemed to be in charge of something. I said, "Parlez-vous English?"

She said, "Non."

Actually, I claim that there's a tremendous journalistic advantage to covering politics when you can't speak the language. You aren't misled into reporting what people say; you're forced to report the inexorable truth of what people do.

The people of Guadeloupe weren't doing much. They certainly weren't voting. I counted 10 voters in the Joyeux Noël school and none at the next two polling places I visited. The streets of Pointe-à-Pitre were crowded. The stores were open for a change, but the crowds seemed to be standing around more than shopping. Of course maybe they were standing in line. Guadeloupe provides a very European level of service.

The next day, back in Europe itself, France rejected the E.U. constitution because (CNN International informed me) the French were worried about competition from Eastern Europeans for French jobs. According to French unemployment figures, the French don't have jobs. In Guadeloupe they're more self-confident about doing nothing. The département voted "Oui" in the referendum, albeit with a do-nothing 22 percent turnout.

At the airport, leaving Guadeloupe, I talked to a mainland Frenchman, Antoine. We were standing in line. A reggae band was on our flight. They had drums. Detailed consideration of the weight and measurements of the drum set had brought seat selection and baggage checking to a halt. Antoine went to buy a bottle of rum and came back 20 minutes later. "This island!" he said. "The airport is full of people and every duty-free shop is closed." Our line hadn't budged. "I have a business friend who lives here," Antoine said. "He was in a line like this at the post office in Pointe-à-Pitre. No one advanced in the line for more than an hour. At last he went to the front of the line and said to the postal clerk, 'Nobody is moving here!' She said, 'Oh, no?' and put up a sign that said 'Out to lunch,' and left."

The French are well advised to worry about competition. But not from the Czechs and Poles. Some citizens of their own country are better at being European than they are.

P.J. O'Rourke is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and author, most recently, of Peace Kills (Atlantic Monthly Press).