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In full knowledge of the facts

Holding a referendum on the European constitution is as absurd an aberration as holding one on reproductive cloning. By Paul Virilio

Under the appearance of democratic openness, the French referendum on the European constitution increasingly appears as a denial of democracy. It is taking the guise of a cloaked plebiscite by a president who since April 21, 2002 has no longer held sway with the French voters, and that despite the incontestable success of his foreign policy at the moment of the refusal of the Iraq War.

It is an open question whether this is a fault on Chirac's part, or an error of judgement. But the consequences of this ballot will be heavy regardless of the outcome on May 29. Tony Blair was the first to grasp this when he proposed call a halt to the British referendum, should the "non" carry the day in France.

But the damage is already done, and for one good reason: the practice of holding a referendum on such a subject is suicidal. It is an electoral absurdity that puts in question the political intelligence not only of the head of state, but also of his immediate entourage and communication advisers.

How can one vote "in full knowledge of the facts" on a text of some 500 pages, with over 400 articles? Who is the butt of jokes when the postal service has to deliver over 40 million copies of the European constitution to electors at their homes, and when ten or more books that set out the implications of the constitution in either positive or negative terms have become best-sellers?

To vote "oui" or "non", must you not only read a pensum that specialists of constitutional law have difficulty with, but also have a familiarity with these different "instructions", that are supposed to make things easier for voters? Is this absent-mindedness on the part of the head of state, or a social game aiming above all at dissimulating the dismays of a political class in view of globalisation, now that they have already lost control of domestic affairs?

To better understand the pseudo-democratic aberration of this referendum, let's engage in a little political fiction: let's imagine there will soon be a referendum on reproductive cloning in Europe, and that the citizens should express their views on this controversial topic. To this end, a 500-page textbook on molecular biology is sent to the hundreds of millions of citizens in the expanded European Union. Add to that a dozen treatises either supporting or rejecting the introduction of therapeutic cloning in Europe.

It's not hard to imagine the angry reaction of the average voter. "Are you kidding? I can't vote in full knowledge of the facts." The same goes for the constitution today, but no one says it.

Another manifest proof of this hijacking of the democratic process: the "non" vote has been openly stigmatised recently in France. The entire mass media, as well as the the political parties both on the Right and on the Left are all banking on the people's fears.

This unanimity of disapproval is a good illustration of the denial of democracy I mentioned above. What electoral legitimacy can a referendum practice have, when one of the choices is lambasted and insulted in the most vile terms by all of the political organisations and by the country's media apparatus?

If the finger can be pointed anywhere for this "blunder", it has to be directed at the absence of wisdom on the part of the president. But Jacques Chirac has forestalled this, by already declaring that he will not step down in case the "non" wins.

Finally, all of this illustrates how the ground is once more shifting. We are moving from a democracy of opinion toward a "democracy of public emotion", where what is desired of voters is less a free choice, a firm affirmation by a sovereign people, than a "limp consensus", a friendly solution in the name of a population subjected to all possible forms of brain washing after the excesses of the polls. In the meantime, after the progress of electronic democracy in real time, we are seeing the era of virtual democracy, inspired by the most outrageous marketing strategies, as exemplified by the election of the current governor of California.


The article was originally published in German in Die Zeit on 25 May, 2005.

Paul Virilio is a philosopher, social critic and urbanist. Chapter 5 of his latest book, "L'accident original", deals with public emotion in the electoral process. Professor emeritus at the Ecole spéciale d'architecture in Paris, Paul Virilio lives in La Rochelle. His books include Bunker Archaeology (1994 [1975]), Speed & Politics: An Essay on Dromology (1986 [1977]), and The Information Bomb (2000 [1998]).

Translation: jab. - let's talk european