COGNAC, FRANCE — It seems that France, too, has “red states” and “blue states.”
Paris and its posh suburbs are blue: They voted for the proposed European Union constitution, a document that promised to bring together the diverse peoples of 25 European nations under a single political and economic system.
By contrast, color red the factory towns of northern France, the high-unemployment Mediterranean south and this mostly rural south-western region, where voters overwhelmingly rejected the plans proposed by France's elites.
The non voters prevailed by a wide margin. The elites have responded by calling them ignorant, fearful -- even racist. Perhaps some are. But when I asked people around these parts why they voted as they did, their answers sounded sensible.
“We're not against Europe,” explained Michel Guilloteau, who grows grapes for use in wines and cognacs. “We're for Europe. But why go so fast? There are differences between France and other countries. Why pretend there are not?”
Why indeed? It may not be entirely unfair to regard France as a great nation that has been cursed with leaders who would rather France be a Great Power. It also may not be unfair to speculate that French President Jacques Chirac believed a politically unified Europe – dominated by a Franco-German entente – could be the means to this end. So he and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder attempted to transform Europe as quickly as possible from a free trade zone into a United States of Europe.
They ignored – and tried to convince everyone else to ignore -- the fact that linguistically, culturally and philosophically the differences between, say, a Frenchman and a Czech are vastly greater than the differences between even a Texan and a New Yorker.
About a decade ago, I was among a group of journalists invited to visit key continental capitals to learn about “the European project.” I was skeptical that so many old and distinct nations were genuinely prepared to give up a large measure of their sovereignty, doubtful that people from Portugal to Poland were ready to think of themselves as Europeans first and accept a one-size-fits-all government.
Not to worry, my colleagues and I were told -- a new, united Europe would be based on “subsidiarity,” the principle that every decision should be made at the lowest possible level of government. What can be decided by the people of Cognac for the people of Cognac was not to be decided by bureaucrats at EU headquarters in Brussels. It has not turned out that way. On the contrary, the power of the “Eurocrats” has increased year after year. What is called the “democracy deficit” has been growing. The proposed constitution would have both endorsed and reinforced this trend.
To the French vote of no confidence in him, Mr. Chirac responded predictably: He appointed a prime minister who is perhaps even more elitist than he – none other than Dominique Marie Francois Rene' Galouzeau de Villepin, a career civil servant who has never run for election, a self-proclaimed poet who keeps a bust of Napoleon in his office, and whose histrionic opposition to the Bush administration in the days preceding the American-led intervention in Iraq brought him international fame.
That performance also helped turn millions of Americans overnight from Francophiles to Francophobes. Evidence of this shift can be found not just in the urgings of radio talk show hosts to listeners to call French fries “freedom fries,” but also by such fast-selling books as John J. Miller's “Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America's Disastrous Relationship with France,” Richard Z. Chesnoff's “The Arrogance of the French: Why They Can't Stand Us – and Why the Feeling is Mutual,” and Kenneth R. Timmerman's “The French Betrayal of America.”
The view from the other side of the pond is documented by French historian Philippe Roger in “The American Enemy: The History of French Anti-Americanism” which suggests that Gallic resentment of U.S. power and prosperity is hardly a new phenomenon.
In the south-west of France, however, a region off the tourist beaten track, one encounters little anti-Americanism. And I've heard more criticism of President Chirac – widely viewed as both incompetent and corrupt -- than of President Bush. Maybe this perspective has something to do with the fact that 40% of the cognac produced here goes to the U.S. Or maybe it's just because this part of France is a red state.