"THIS CONSTITUTION," SAID French president Jacques Chirac in mid-April, "is in its way, a daughter of French thought." He was talking about the 448-article constitutional treaty (the U.S. Constitution has 7 articles) that is meant to bind the 25 countries of the European Union into something like a superstate. And he was right about the French part. Ever since France, Germany, Italy, and the Low Countries united in a common market half a century ago, Europe-wide cooperation has taken place on France's terms. This has been partly due to the diffidence of postwar Germany, partly to the prowess of France's governing classes. France's clout has diminished with the addition of new countries from the former Soviet bloc, but the E.U. is still its handiwork. Now that the E.U. is getting a permanent constitution, it is not surprising that a large European country is finally complaining. What is surprising is that that large European country is France.

All 25 countries must ratify the constitutional treaty to bring it into force. Most contented themselves with a parliamentary vote. Chirac has promised France a referendum, to be held on May 29. Until recently, it looked like a formality. When a poll in mid-March showed a narrow majority for a "No" vote, many wondered if it was a fluke. Since then, however, French disapproval of "Europe" has crept forward. By mid-April it was steady at 53 percent. Chirac decided to spend some of the political capital he had accumulated in several decades at the top of national politics--not to mention several weeks in 2003 as the head of the global coalition against the Iraq war. He would take his case to the country via television, in an evening of frank discussion with the "youth of France"--80 members of the very constituency that was supposed to benefit most from the building of a united Europe, but among whom skepticism of the E.U. was running highest.

Since many opponents of the constitutional treaty fretted over délocalisation--jobs moving abroad to the E.U.'s less expensive new member countries--Chirac was in a position analogous to that of Al Gore in 1993, when he went on Larry King Live to debate Ross Perot over NAFTA. But Chirac's job was tougher. Economist Hans-Werner Sinn of the Munich-based Institute for Economic Research (IFO) recently found that labor costs in the 10 new E.U. member states were one-seventh of those in western Germany. And this for well-trained, well-educated Hungarian and Slovak labor. The result is a great deal of insecurity for young workers everywhere in Western Europe, but particularly in countries with unreformed welfare states. In France, unemployment is at 22 percent for people under 25. Some of them resort to crime, many of the smartest emigrate to London or Silicon Valley, and others work on the black market. And that is how, midway through his television appearance, Chirac walked into a damaging exchange over job security:

Student: I have to work to pay for my studies. I'm at the Tours technical institute, in social work.
Moderator: What kind of job?

Student: Actually, I work off the books.

Moderator: Okay, off the books. Why?

Chirac (laughing): We don't need the details. He was making a joke, everyone can see that.

Student: It may make you laugh. It doesn't make me laugh.

Chirac had one other big problem. Among Europe's leaders, he has been the most ardent backer of Turkey's candidacy for membership in the E.U., a candidacy which French voters oppose with more obduracy than those of any other Western European country. Chirac's Turkey policy came at zero political cost back in the 1990s, but since then, two political developments have undone it. First, to the astonishment of most E.U. leaders, Turkey has actually undertaken the democratic reforms that the E.U. made a precondition of its candidacy. Second, Western Europeans have been panicked by the flight of jobs to Eastern Europe. And Turkey, with wages that are lower still, will, by the time of its projected admission to the E.U., be the largest country in Europe.

Chirac exited the evening like Perot, not like Gore. Opposition to the E.U. constitution actually rose after his intervention, according to overnight polling--from 53 percent to 56 percent. What may have been most unnerving to Chirac is how few people felt they needed to hear his views on France's most important constitutional debate in almost 50 years. According to the daily Libération, the broadcast got only 7.4 million viewers nationwide, nosing past Clint Eastwood's Pale Rider, which got 6.4 million on another channel. Among the 15-to-34 age group that was Chirac's target demographic, the president's appearance was clobbered by Nouvelle Star, the French equivalent of American Idol, which took 33.4 percent of the viewing audience, considerably more than Chirac's 21.5 percent.

Since the Iraq war, Chirac's popularity has followed the same downward spiral from dizzying heights that the elder George Bush's did after the Gulf war. Chirac, though, sought to recapture a bit of the old magic by suggesting that the best argument for passing the E.U. constitution was that the Americans (and the British) dislike it. Should France vote "No" on the constitution, Chirac warned, "the free-market trend will spread. What do the Anglo-Saxon countries want, particularly the United States? They want us to stop this European construction, which risks creating a Europe that will be stronger and capable of defending itself."

France may not be turning into a nation of free-marketers and Yankee-lovers, but it is stunning to see how little purchase such arguments now have, how tired the public considers them. People are looking elsewhere for answers. Today, the leading source of information on the European constitution is not any of the daily newspapers but Etienne Chouard, who teaches classes de brevet de technicien supérieur (French for "shop") at a high school in Marseilles. In the past few weeks, Chouard's website (http://etienne.chouard.free.fr) has turned into a rallying point, a sort of low-tech French Drudge Report, full of simple republican sentiments. "I believe that it is fundamentally undemocratic to propose a constitution that is so difficult to read," Chouard writes.

The constitutional treaty is looking a bit like the last utopian gasp of the French generation of 1968. The more people get to know it, the more closely they read it, the less they seem to like it. After Chirac's failure on TV, former president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, who authored the constitution in consultation with European bureaucracies, went on One Hundred Minutes to Convince, France's Nightline, to try to save the day. "It's easy to read," he pleaded. "Limpid, rather beautifully written . . . " Without cracking a smile, he urged his readers to spend an evening reading the first 60 articles.

Indeed. Once you read those, you won't be able to put it down.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.

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