A Constitutional Mess

French President Jacques Chirac, left, and French interior minister Dominique de Villepin, Tuesday, May 31, 2005.
This column was written by Christopher Caldwell.
When the Russian Army chased Napoleon's troops all the way back to Paris in 1814, the occupiers were not just tolerated but welcomed. They were chic. The empress Josephine herself went riding with the young czar. The locals seemed to delight in subjugation, the more undignified, the better. "We women," wrote Mme. Chateaubriand, "would cry 'Off with our heads!' were we to hear our neighbors do so." The French are funny. They will always stand up against usurpation of their rights and liberties by foreigners -- but they do take their time about it.

Last week, their time came. French voters rejected a proposed "constitutional treaty" for the European Union and sent a shock through the continent. Seventy percent of the country turned out -- roughly triple the usual French showing for an E.U. election -- after the most heated national debate since the Algerian war. They rejected the treaty by a stunning 10-point margin.

In so doing, they closed the book on a half-century in which France had sought to maintain its dwindling world clout by leading the countries of Europe into a new kind of political union, with its capital in Brussels. "Never separate the grandeur of France from the building of Europe," president François Mitterrand had said in the early 1990s, towards the end of his 14 years in office. "This is our new dimension." By the turn of the millennium, the influential editor of the Nouvel Observateur, Jacques Julliard, could say that "today's French patriots are Europeans." And in 2003, France's foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, made an international media feast of this new doctrine before it was even fully cooked, telling bemused delegates to the United Nations, that they -- and they alone -- had the legitimacy to press for democratic change in Iraq.

Having unleashed this gospel on the world, the French have now become the first to declare their apostasy. The consequences were both immediate and far-reaching. The Dutch, who share many of the misgivings about the surrendering of sovereignty that the French do, had a referendum three days later. Their worries had been compounded by two recent episodes of political violence -- the assassination of the populist politician Pim Fortuyn in May 2002 and the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh by an Islamist radical in November 2004. The Dutch rejected the constitutional treaty by 62 percent to 38, on a 63 percent turnout. That, too, was roughly triple the country's showing at a typical European election.

The only part of the 485-page constitution that anyone will henceforth need to remember -- although it is the part that people all over Brussels are now trying to forget -- is Article IV, section 447. That passage stipulates that the constitutional treaty is not valid unless all countries of the E.U. ratify it. There is no putting a brave face on what has happened: The E.U.'s attempt to bind itself constitutionally into an ever closer union has, for the foreseeable future, failed.

This is not without consequences for the United States. Some of them are good ones. Just last month, flush with his success in the recent British parliamentary elections, anti-Iraq war member of parliament George Galloway gloated over the coming reckoning for the friends of the American alliance. "Most of the commentary that you'll read nowadays," Galloway told Charlie Rose, "is about when, not if, Mr. Blair departs the political stage early, and I think Iraq is the main reason for that. Aznar in Spain has already gone. I predict, you know, that Berlusconi in Italy will be the next to go. One by one, these people who committed this, at best, grotesque blunder, are paying a political price for it."