Courtesy Reuters

The End of French Europe?

THINGS FALL APART

On May 29 of last year, French voters rejected the draft of a new EU constitution in a nationwide referendum. Although not unexpected, their vote plunged the European Union into a long period of uncertainty. It also signaled that France itself is in crisis. In saying no to a draft worked out largely by their own leaders, French voters effectively disowned those leaders -- and, in the process, exported their country's crisis to the EU. European integration and the EU constitution had largely been French endeavors, and France had long been Europe's natural leader. A year after the vote, the key question that remains is whether the no vote, as well as the subsequent riots in the Parisian banlieues (suburbs) and the more recent mass protests against youth labor reform, has destroyed France's ability to lead the EU, an institution France did so much to create.

France has faced similar crises in the past. Following its 1870 defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and again after the disaster of 1940 (when France fell to Germany in a mere six weeks), France struggled to maintain its national security and its rank as a great power. It tried to recover from its failure in 1870 by establishing the Third Republic, rebuilding its military, and developing alliances against Germany. The French could not agree, however, on the underlying causes of the defeat, and this prevented the creation of a unified blueprint for rebuilding the country -- a lack of cohesion that led to France's second great humiliation, in the early days of World War II.

After that war ended, France adopted a more creative approach to its reconstruction. Its leaders drew up a new model for a planned economy and a welfare state and in 1958, after another political crisis, established the fifth Republic, adopting new political institutions that favored the executive at the expense of the legislature. Starting in the late 1940s, France's leaders also turned to the project of European integration, using it to resolve

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