Jacques Chirac and the great EU swindle

In 2005, the French electorate rejected the EU's constitution. The EU ignored them

Tim Black

Tim Black


‘This Europe of powerlessness… This Europe, where multinational companies dictate their laws to states. This Europe where France would be stuck like in a swamp… We do not accept this Europe!’

It’s fair to say Jacques Chirac, the then mayor of Paris and leader of the neo-Gaullist Rally for the Republic, was not a fan of the European Economic Community. But that was 1979. As many of those reflecting on his political career have pointed out, following his death aged 86, Chirac changed political positions nearly as often as he changed mistresses.

By 1992, Chirac, with his eye on a third run at the presidency, had shaken off his anti-Europe garb, and was campaigning in support of EU membership during the referendum on the Maastricht Treaty. His side won, by a whisker, with just 51 per cent of the vote.

Perhaps the memory of the 1992 referendum always niggled at Chirac. At the start, the Yes side was polling at 65 per cent. But by the time the result was announced, the case for EU membership had withered in the daylight of public scrutiny. That the French still voted by a small margin to join the EU could not cover up the deep well of anti-EU feeling now exposed.

So when the the 450 pages of thick, knotted legalese of the EU’s European Constitution emerged in 2004, Chirac, now the French president, was understandably concerned about staging a referendum. He had seen what happened in 1992. And he had also seen what had happened in 2002, when the Irish electorate rejected the Nice Treaty.

It wasn’t just Chirac’s political future on the line. It was the EU’s, too. The constitution may have been wilfully byzantine, drawn up by 105 experts with no input from elected representatives, but its intent was clear. It was to empower the EU at the expense of member states’ residual sovereignty. Hence it talked of strengthening the executive; of eliminating the six-month rotating EU presidency and replacing it with a five-year-term president; of establishing an EU foreign-policy commission; of conferring more power to Brussels over immigration and justice; of demarcating exactly where EU law supersedes domestic law, and so on.

If it was rejected by France, one half of the Franco-German motor driving the European project, then the EU’s future itself would be called into question

To his credit, then, on 14 July 2004, Chirac went for it: ‘The French people are concerned directly, and will therefore be consulted directly…next year.’

At the time, polls suggested that over 60 per cent of the French electorate were in favour of the European Constitution. The pro-EU campaign was further boosted by the fact that the entire mainstream political establishment eventually signed up to support it, from the various elements of the ruling centre-right coalition to the Socialists and the Greens.

But as soon as the campaign began, the No side started to pick up support.

There were several, familiar reasons for this. First, Chirac seemed unable to defend, let alone make a positive case for, the EU. As a leaked memo from the UK’s Europe minister in April 2005 laid bare, there was a feeling that Chirac showed ‘a lack of leadership in explaining, defending, promoting the EU’. Among the French ruling elite, the frustration was equally palpable. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a former Socialist minister and future managing director of the IMF, remarked: ‘This referendum is bloody stupid. We were bloody stupid enough to ask for one and Jacques Chirac was bloody stupid enough to call it.’

And second, the arguments against the EU resonated. People were concerned that enlargement would further dilute France’s sovereignty. They were even more concerned, as captured in the form of Charlie Hebdo’s ‘Polish plumber’, that the new EU constitution opened France up to an army of reserve labour from newly signed-up Eastern countries, reducing wages and raising unemployment.

Indeed, while the Socialist Party may have allied itself with Chirac, many on the left campaigned against the EU, from trade unions to old Communists. The EU was not seen as a protector of workers’ rights. Quite the opposite. It was grasped as a Europe-wide iteration of the same globalised liberal capitalism that leftists had been attacking for decades. Chirac himself, in a desperate attempt to curry favour, even began bemoaning the EU’s ‘ultra-liberalism’.

Little wonder the referendum campaign, like Brexit, split along roughly class lines. A leading pollster, Roland Cayrol, noted at the time that blue and lower-grade white-collar workers, the self-employed and farmers were planning to vote No, whereas professionals, managers and graduates were opting for Yes. ‘There’s a clear division between a well-off, confident France and an anxious, struggling France’, said Cayrol. ‘These are two countries.’

By April 2005, it was clear that the EU was in trouble. ‘We will reproach ourselves later if we let slip this historic opportunity to advance Europe’, said German chancellor Gerhard Schröder in a last-ditch intervention. ‘Our children, our children’s children, will reproach us. France and Germany have a very special responsibility for the success of this process.’

These were to prove ominous words.

On 29 May 2005, on a turnout of 69 per cent, 55 per cent of voters rejected the constitution. It should have been a severe, possibly even fatal blow to the process of EU integration. The French people had rejected the EU. They had rejected further economic liberalisation. And they had rejected further political disenfranchisement.

But it seems the ‘very special responsibility for the success of the process’ held by the likes of Schröder and Chirac drove them towards an all-too-familiar response: misrepresent and then ignore the vote.

First, politicians, EU officials and pro-EU pundits argued that it wasn’t clear what the French had voted for. Holder of the EU presidency, Jean-Claude Juncker, said: ‘I am still very much in doubt when I look at this very mixed response in France.’ European Commission president José Manuel Barroso agreed. ‘There was no one clear voice coming from the No camp, no one simple message.’

Then, over the following months, the EU set about ignoring the vote, by repackaging the EU constitution as the Lisbon Treaty. As Chirac’s one-time rival Valerie D’Estaing noted in 2007, the proposals in the constitution were simply dispersed through old treaties in the form of amendments, so as to ‘avoid any form of constitutional vocabulary’. Because if there’s no constitutional vocabulary, there’s no need to put the treaty to a referendum. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was unequivocal in a 2007 speech to the European Parliament: ‘The substance of the constitution is preserved. That is a fact.’

By the time the French parliament ratified the de facto constitution that its people had already rejected, Chirac himself had stepped down. But he ought to be remembered at least for allowing the people to speak as they did, clearly and resoundingly, on 29 May 2005.

Tim Black is a spiked columnist.

Picture by: Getty Images.

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Aunty Podes

4th October 2019 at 11:33 pm

The crocodile tears and false aggrandisement of that louche louse Chirac are a disgrace. The man was a disgrace even to despicable France.
His behaviour, and that of France, in the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior affair exposed the total lack of morals, ethics, justice, gratitude, truth, loyalty, honesty and decency in both of them. France and Chirac talk endlessly about “honour” – which they neither possess not even know the meaning of.

reality lite

3rd October 2019 at 11:06 pm

Yes, I can remember taking holidays in Europe before the EU, Sr Dias. Before the UK joined the EEC, as it was. In Portugal, coincidentally. poverty stricken little country ruled by a dictator. Average wage was tenpence an hour. UK it was more like six shillings. Seven times as much. Of course you like the EU. After the billions the productive northern nations have poured into your ramshackle economy. Perpetually teetering on the brink of disaster. Trouble is, you don’t actually pay your way in Europe, do you? You leave others to pick up the tab. One of the reasons we’re leaving the sinking ship

Hugh Bryant

3rd October 2019 at 11:01 am

Despite all the efforts of Chirac, Macron and other enarques it will be France that, in the end, brings down the EU. To understand why, simply go there and try to start or grow a small business.

Geoff Cox

3rd October 2019 at 1:01 pm

I’ve been campaigning against the EU for years, but I never thought we would be the first to leave. In fact, I thought we would be the last – left begging everyone else to stay in. My choice for the first to leave was also France – for one reason, they are the most nationalistic of the main nations in the EU. And I say good luck to them. I want the French to stay French and the Germans to stay German. Some people might say “diversity is strength”.

Pedro Dias

3rd October 2019 at 9:52 am

Yeah. Let’s go back to the good old days when everyone had to smuggle foreign goods in order to get them cheaper. When it was financially impossible to have holidays abroad. When you risk getting to the border and had to come back home because on the other side they didn’t like your face. When you had to pay import duties in order to run your business. When you weren’t exporting enough due to your goods’ price on the destination country. When you risk not having a job abroad because you don’t get a visa, or a work permit. Closed countries, lack of diversity, closed culture, closed minds. Think small… Welcome to the 21st Century Great Britain!

harry briggs

3rd October 2019 at 10:09 am

They might not like your face Pedro but I think everyone else will be fine.

Pedro Dias

3rd October 2019 at 11:02 am

You are wrong Harry because I’m European and I’ll be always free to go anywhere in Europe without the hassle of having to justify my journeys or presence. Can be in Italy for great clothes, going to Spain for my retirement on a sunny place, France for a nice meal or even Germany to do business. I’m not 100% passionate about the European project. There are many flaws, but it gives us all opportunities which were impossible with borders between countries. I don’t feel less Portuguese just because of open borders! My roots are still intact and I’m proud of my country in many ways. Europe is a challenge for everyone. It’s not just for the UK! And to be fair, the lowest income countries in Europe should be the ones to oppose a European project, as it’s difficult for them to be competitive with others such as UK, Germany, France, Spain or Italy. The idea that Europe is ripping us all is totally wrong. There’s an effort to bring development to remote regions in all countries. A lot of money has been invested in places which otherwise would be completely abandoned by now. Same happen here in the UK in regions such as Wales, Cornwall and others. Even here where I live, Bournemouth. Just to give you an example, the BCP council had to scrap several millions of pounds of EU money investment in public infrastructures, simply because UK won’t be receiving that money anymore. We all loose with this (in my opinion) ridiculous sense of “identity loss”. You won’t be less British, Irish, Scottish or whatever is your homeland, just because you’re part of a community! Welsh, for example, could argue they do not belong to the UK, isn’t that right? People negotiate and compromise, same as governments around the World in order to settle themselves in a position that can be respected by all parts involved.

Dominic Straiton

3rd October 2019 at 10:52 am

Except were not going back to 1974. Were going forward not backwards and trading with the world is incredibly easy. Its the eu thats stuck in the past.

Pedro Dias

3rd October 2019 at 11:16 am

Trading with the world it’s not as easy as you say. A normal trade deal takes years to be completed and the UK will be in an extremely difficult position. Don’t forget that the countries UK will have to deal with, already have their own trade deals in place with players such as the EU, and they won’t scrap those deals easily because there’s a lot more involved than just a single product.

Dominic Straiton

3rd October 2019 at 11:21 am

People trade. Governments have very little to do with it. This country has been trading with North America for four hundred years without a “trade deal”. It is very easy to trade and send good worldwide. Its not complicated.

Pedro Dias

3rd October 2019 at 11:34 am

The world it’s not just the US. Are you telling that having 40% of export tariffs on Welsh lamb – for example – is “extremely” easy? How do you explain that to a Welsh producer?

Mark Bretherton

3rd October 2019 at 11:33 am

FML! You really are dumb.
“Let’s go back to the good old days when everyone had to smuggle foreign goods in order to get them cheaper. ”
Yes because the Euro has really reduced prices across the continent hasn’t it?
“When it was financially impossible to have holidays abroad.”
Like there wasn’t package holidays before the EU. It was certainly cheaper to holiday abroad before the advent of the Euro.
“When you risk getting to the border and had to come back home because on the other side they didn’t like your face.”
Nope, never happened. if you have a passport you’ll find it says ‘Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State Requests and requires in the Name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance, and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary.’ kind of like it says in every other single passport throughout the world. You would only be turned away if said country required a visa that you’d been to lazy to organise.
“When you had to pay import duties in order to run your business.”
What, like you do for the other 168 countries in the world? Why should the UK tax payer pay the bill in order for an individual or company to import stuff?
“When you weren’t exporting enough due to your goods’ price on the destination country.”
We have the pound, pretty much the most expensive currency in the world. Our goods are more expensive through out the world yet we still export more throughout the world than to the EU.
“When you risk not having a job abroad because you don’t get a visa, or a work permit.”
Like the rest of the world you mean?
“Closed countries, lack of diversity, closed culture, closed minds. Think small…”
Like think of 27 countries rather than 195?

Pedro Dias

3rd October 2019 at 11:52 am

What makes you so sure that 195 countries will scrap deals they have in place between them, in order to have a deal with the UK? And before calling someone a “dumbass” think about your words and the way you refer to someone who you don’t even know. This is a debate where people can expose opinions about the subject. Just because my opinions differ from yours, doesn’t give you the right to call me or anyone else a “dumbass”. Showing some integrity and sense of respect for others’ opinions, makes the world less angry and easier to live in.

Dominic Straiton

3rd October 2019 at 12:00 pm

Theres A Brazilian butchers around the corner from me in London selling Brazilian beef. The most complicated trade iv done was exporting to Vietnam. Two forms later all sorted.

Dominic Straiton

3rd October 2019 at 12:06 pm

When we entered the EEC most New Zealand lamp came to Britain. They had to find a new market. New Zealand lamp is exported to their new biggest market. The middle east.

Mike Ellwood

4th October 2019 at 1:25 am

I find it hard to find NZ lamb these days, although I actually prefer the home-grown variety. Not cheap, of course.

Julius Caribou

3rd October 2019 at 3:56 pm


Geoff Cox

3rd October 2019 at 4:44 pm

Hi Pedro – your post is a little aggressive hence the sharp replies.

The only thing you say in your post which is really true is the visas for jobs which have become unnecessary as a result of membership of the EU. Lower tariffs would have been agreed through WTO and holidays would have got cheaper over time, like most other things. People being turned away wasn’t an issue as far as I remember.

But even if all these things were true, you are missing the point about Brexit (or as we should call it Independence). The bigger picture is political not economic. It is about sovereignty and electing people into government who you can get rid of.

I’m the first to agree we have been badly served by our own government over the last 30 years with or without the EU, but I’m hoping (maybe in vain) that by getting our sovereignty back, maybe some politicians will come forward with a bit more about them. Personally, I’d like someone to come along and reduce the size of the State, thereby reducing the areas of government incompetence!

There is also the question of culture which has been eroded and changed almost out of recognition which the EU has a lot to do with – but I’ll leave that for another day.

Geoff Cox – not the Attorney General

Mike Ellwood

4th October 2019 at 1:13 am

Pity, I was going to congratulate you on your recent speech. 😉

But seriously, I agree with most of your post, except that I am more comfortable than you with a large state…..so long as we can reasonably easily vote out those in charge of it (and hopefully replace them with some better leaders).

Gerard Barry

3rd October 2019 at 6:22 pm

“Closed countries, lack of diversity, closed culture, closed minds.”

Lack of diversity? I wasn’t aware that the UK was planning to deport all foreigners after Brexit.

Jonathan Yonge

3rd October 2019 at 9:48 am

Among others, there are two reasons why democracy is effective:
– to make good decisions which are in harmony with the will of the electorate.
– to recognise that government must have a mandate for its actions, or its will fall.

What are ‘the establishement’ trying to achieve by remaining in the EU ?
It seems to believe not only that technocracy makes better decisions (Euro anyone?) but also that government can be forced in an advanced western nation with hundreds of years democratic history. It doesn’t add up.

Warren Alexander

3rd October 2019 at 9:31 am

One (of the very many) thing that I don’t understand is why politicians are so eager to give up the power to govern their own countries, when they have so viciously and assiduously fought to gain office and rule us. Is it that once they see what governing a country is really like, they are so scared that they are desperate to outsource it? Or perhaps they genuinely believe that technocracy is superior to democracy?

Hugh Bryant

3rd October 2019 at 10:59 am

You only have to look at the Kinnocks to see why politicians are keen on a system where they can’t be sacked by the electorate.

Mike Ellwood

4th October 2019 at 1:22 am

That’s why the buggers won’t abolish the Lords, I suppose.

a watson

3rd October 2019 at 5:53 pm

Our political representatives have been outsourcing as much as they can abroad over recent years. They are convinced that outsourcing our democracy would be a good thing and appear to be making it attractive for those outside our shores to take over.

Jane 70

3rd October 2019 at 7:26 am

There are many up here north of the border as well, but we have to withstand the SNP’s dominance .

Going slightly off message, here is an account of the latest ‘thigh encroachment’ saga:


I wonder if the EU cadres have a black ops propaganda directorate, with which they feed the eager UK media.

Jane 70

3rd October 2019 at 7:27 am

My tin hat theory

Mike Ellwood

4th October 2019 at 1:21 am

Thanks for that. Had no idea of the Peston connection. But perhaps should not be surprised, given what seems to be the incestuous nature of the media-politics bubble ….. Gove-Viner, Cummings-Wakefield, A. Cambell & whoever it was. Private Eye of course is good at uncovering these connections which the general public may not be aware of.

Andrew Best

3rd October 2019 at 6:29 am

We can see the remainer establishment is following the French establishments playbook to the letter
They really hate us to the point they are destroying our democracy and do not seem to understand that their Pyrrhic victory will resonate for decades
And on a side note I live in London and there are a lot of leave voters here, we are not all anti democratic remoaners

a watson

3rd October 2019 at 10:06 am

And all London working-class leave voters haven’t been socially cleansed from their traditional areas by the London Labour Party and their developer associates lucrative housing policies. It might be dangerous to express one’s working class attitude though – especially if you are white male and a pensioner.

Warren Alexander

3rd October 2019 at 1:30 pm

As a born and bred Londoner, white, male, pensioner, but one that is irredeemably middle class, I have the great honour to be represented in Parliament by that great protector of the vulnerable and needy Sir Keir Starmer, Knight Commander of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath, Queens Counsel. It is encouraging that such a committed socialist holds an ancient imperial title and battles so hard to protect the democratic rights of the people. Where would be without such noble aristocrats?

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