Not in front of the children!

by Chris Bertram on June 15, 2005

A remarkable admission from Valery Giscard d’Estaing in the New York Times :

A crucial turning point for the fate of the constitution in France came last March, Mr. Giscard d’Estaing said, when he phoned Mr. Chirac to warn him not to send the entire three-part, 448-article document to every French voter. The third and longest part consisted only of complicated treaties that have already been in force for years.
He said Mr. Chirac refused, citing legal reasons. “I said, ‘Don’t do it, don’t do it,’ ” Mr. Giscard d’Estaing said. “It is not possible for anyone to understand the full text.”

{ 31 comments }

1

Barry 06.15.05 at 5:44 am

As an American, I don’t see what the fuss is about. We have a Congress where the legislators don’t read bills before voting for them. And that’s even if the bill is actually available to read.

2

H. 06.15.05 at 5:49 am

Giscard has a point, though. It was a very complex treaty (not really a constitution) which is difficult to understand without the expertise.

Of course, as such, it should never have been put to a referendum, it should have been ratified by parliament, ie the job of ratifying it should have been that of democratically elected representatives, not the voters themselves, who can’t be expected to have the time, inclination or expertise to read through 500 pages of legalese.

3

Barry 06.15.05 at 5:59 am

Which, I imagine, will lead to some major legal problems. If the text of a bill is not distributed before it is voted on, who can tell what the controlling text is.

4

P ONeill 06.15.05 at 8:44 am

Indeed. Later on in the same article, we are told that

In 2003, Mr. Giscard d’Estaing was inducted as an “Immortal” into the august Académie Française. Earlier this year, he bought a 15th-century chateau in a small French village named Estaing, helping to solidify his family’s tenuous claim to nobility.

It hasn’t occurred to him that he might be part of the problem.

5

Luis Villa 06.15.05 at 8:51 am

Yeah. It seems to me the solution is not ‘don’t send copies of the consitution out’, but perhaps ‘maybe constitutions should be less than 500 pages long’. Tellingly, he says earlier in the same NYT article that the constitution was ‘as perfect as, perhaps less elegant than, the US Constitution.’ (Emphasis mine.) Maybe I have an unhealthy addiction to simplicity, but 500 pages seems a great deal less elegant than the US constitution, and maybe not recognizing that is symolic of the complaints many Europeans seem to have about the Brussels bureacracy- overly complex, totally out of touch, etc.

6

jet 06.15.05 at 8:56 am

Is it really a positive thing to have a class of technocrats with fairly unchecked power? Doesn’t history show that successful government does everything it can to keep the people as involved as possible in their governance, and that excluding them leads to corruption and death counted in the millions? So what group of brainchildren came up with the idea to obscure the mechanics of government to the point that the average citizen has no ability to partake in their own governance?

7

otto 06.15.05 at 9:01 am

“Not in front of the children” is the motto of all EU politics, not just the treaty.

8

Billings 06.15.05 at 10:14 am

Yes, something as important as a constitution should have been left to the political professionals. They know many things the rest of us don’t. The more power Brussels and the UN bureaucracy gather unto themselves, the better off everyone will be.

9

Barry 06.15.05 at 10:17 am

Ooooh, the trolls are gathering!!!
Aren’t they cute!

10

jet 06.15.05 at 10:41 am

barry,
Very clever arguement you have there. I am completely convinced by your explanation of why the Constitution should not have been given to the people of France and as to why “It is not possible for anyone to understand the full text.”

11

Maynard Handley 06.15.05 at 11:44 am

“It is not possible for anyone to understand the full text.”
is hardly a comment on this specific treaty; it is a comment on the legal/political profession as practiced in the European/British/American tradition (and, for all I know, in every nation throughout history). I mean, come on, is there a single individual on earth who understands the full text of IRS regulations? Of the US budget? Of something as limited as a tax treaty between the US and say Britain?

There is something about the political process that takes even technical documents (like say the MPEG4 specification) and, after rewriting them in bureacratic language that promises to offend no-one and that complies with three hundred years of historical precedent, produces something so opaque that anyone trying to learn about the subject uses derivative works (papers and books) written by principals disgusted with the final product, rather than the original source specification.

Valery Giscard d’Estaing’s comment tells us something very sad about human sociology, but nothing particularly specific or damning about the EU constitution.

12

Uncle Kvetch 06.15.05 at 1:52 pm

FWIW, I was on vacation in France a couple of weeks ago and heard no end of commentary on the constitution–including one person who told me he had made a good faith attempt to read the whole damn thing, and ended up concurring with VGE.

I think Maynard H is on the right track here. There’s already plenty of evidence out there of the arrogance and elitism underlying the EU constitutional process–I got an earful of it from friends in France. This one particular statement by VGE is not necessarily a convincing example.

13

Omri 06.15.05 at 2:40 pm

Americans put up with the IRS code. They revere the Constitution, however. There are reasons for that.

14

abb1 06.15.05 at 3:19 pm

They revere the Constitution, however.

Apparently you could be arrested for reciting the constitution (or, more likely, the declaration of independence) in the US capitol building. It sounds subversive.

15

Dan Simon 06.15.05 at 4:10 pm

Valery Giscard d’Estaing’s comment tells us something very sad about human sociology, but nothing particularly specific or damning about the EU constitution.

However–and I suspect this is Chris’ real point–Giscard’s comment also says something about the political culture of the EU. Technical organizations, to say nothing of political ones, publish and distribute their impenetrable, jargon-rich documents all the time, knowing that only a tiny minority of the recipients will have either the ability or the inclination to decipher any part of them. However, they understand the value of an open process: it invites those with the desire to participate to do so, and reassures those who choose otherwise that they are free to jump in anytime, should they change their minds. Those who choose to remain on the periphery are thus inclined to trust both the process and those involved in it.

The real significance of Giscard’s comment is in what he did not say, but probably thought: that those who do not understand this document will in this case be reminded that it was not drafted in an open process, is not being distributed as an invitation to participation by those willing to make the effort, and therefore does not deserve to be trusted.

Had the process been different, the French public would have been inclined to cut this incomprehensible document much more slack, and M. Giscard would have had no reason to fear the consequences of distributing it.

16

JR 06.15.05 at 6:51 pm

Why does it surprise people that the technical details of commercial treaties are beyond the competence of ordinary citizens? International treaties are necessarily written by and for people with a high degree of expertise in tax and trade matters. Treaties don’t belong in a constitution, and if there were technical reasons to incorporate them by reference, that should have been done without encumbering the document itself with them.

Giscard is right that it was foolish to provide people with the text of treaties already in effect. Those treaties are still in effect in spite of the no vote, and thus the voters were not being asked to vote on them at all. Do you think anyone understood that? The presence of the irrelevant treaties just made it less likely that anyone would open the package to read the important stuff.

17

soru 06.15.05 at 7:18 pm

As I understand it, the core problem is they wrote an updated treaty, and then one day thought ‘wouldn’t it be cool if we called this treaty a constitution’?

soru

18

Mill 06.15.05 at 7:34 pm

Hey abb1, got a source backing that claim up? Slightly intrigued here.

19

ogmb 06.15.05 at 8:57 pm

“It is not possible for anyone to understand the full text.”

This is not the reason why they shouln’t have sent it out, it’s the reason why they should have ditched it in the first place. The very first test a Constitution must pass is that it comprehensible to the people it governs.

20

abb1 06.16.05 at 12:49 am

Oh, Mill, for chrissake, can’t a guy make a wisecrack anymore without being called on it?

OKay, that “Granny D” woman from NH was supposedly arrested for ‘for calmly reciting the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Capitol building’; obviously it was a publicity stunt on her part, but she did manage to get arrested.

21

MollyMooly 06.16.05 at 3:09 am

It’s one thing to start with a simple Constitution and, over 200 years, accumulate a corpus of statutes and other instruments, all required from birth to be compatible with it. It’s quite another thing to start with 50 years of treaties and directives, and then try to reverse engineer a constitution with which they are all compatible. They should have done what Ireland did at independence: drafted a short constitution, and said “all existing laws remain in force, except insofar as they are incompatible with this constitution”. Come to think of it, Lord d’Estaing, hasn’t the Napoleonic Code survived the subsequent constitutions of a Kingdom, 4 Republics and an Empire?

22

bi 06.16.05 at 7:22 am

Erm, Dan Simon, the crucial part of that longish document consisted of “treaties that have already been in force for years”. What kind of open process do you propose in order to copy down words that have been around long ago?

In short: get a clue. And a brain, while you’re at it.

23

Billings 06.16.05 at 8:47 am

Bi-guy resorting to abuse as usual. But it’s gotta be frustrating being out-thought all the time. Might be time for him for the Tarzan yell and beating his chest about his atheism.

24

jet 06.16.05 at 10:27 am

Bi,
Treaties are quite malleable. Constitutions are less so.

25

rjw 06.16.05 at 11:54 am

I think a lot of you have touched on a key point – calling it a constitution makes a difference – it changes expectations.

People expect a constitution to be a clear statement of rights, values, or something similar.

Then you look at the EU document itself – and it is long , technical, and difficult to interpret –
which is disturbing.

In reality it is a Treaty. And they would have been better off caliing it that to begin with. The old mistake was made – promising more than could be delivered.

26

Maynard Handley 06.16.05 at 12:03 pm

There are plenty of constitutions that are pretty long.
Look, for example, at the new South African Constitution.
http://www.polity.org.za/html/govdocs/constitution/saconst.html?rebookmark=1
I mean, Christ, it has crap in there about what the flag should look like and how to choose the national anthem.

Then there is the infamous Alabama constitution:
http://www.legislature.state.al.us/CodeOfAlabama/Constitution/1901/Constitution1901_toc.htm

Go look at it; It’s pretty enlightening — it reads like the entire freaking legal code for the state.

The fact is that the EU constitution doesn’t seem that out of place compared to the competitors. The US constitution is a model of brevity, but it also seems an exception, something that, thrown into today’s world and without the expectation of shared values that existed when it was put together, might not work as well as it has.

27

Uncle Kvetch 06.16.05 at 1:55 pm

The fact is that the EU constitution doesn’t seem that out of place compared to the competitors.

Maynard, I agree with you on this, insofar as it’s inaccurate to consider the EU Constitution as sui generis. On the other hand, I think you’d agree that what was called for at this moment, in this particular context, was something radically different–something more like what RJW refers to, a clear statement of rights, values, founding principles.

There may be nothing particularly “wrong” with the constitution…but I’m still astounded by the political ineptitude of those who expected voters to sign off on it.

28

David Nieporent 06.16.05 at 2:00 pm

The fact is that the EU constitution doesn’t seem that out of place compared to the competitors.

That is, if you consider Alabama to be a “competitor” of the EU. One would assume the EU aspires to be more like the US than like Alabama.

29

Maynard Handley 06.16.05 at 5:03 pm

Oh don’t be silly, David. Do you honestly believe that Alabama’s woes are the fault of its constitution rather than its population and history, and that, with a different constitution, the place would be substantially different? This is not, a priori, impossible, but it’s something I’d need evidence to believe.

I have seen arguments (with evidence) that the way states are structured (eg presidency vs parliament) affects how they turn out (on average), but I’ve never seen an argument (again with evidence) along the lines that the form of a constitution (eg long vs short) as opposed to what it says (and far more so, as opposed to the prior political history) have any effect on much of anything.

To the extent that the EU consitution is something that needs to be sold, it makes sense (if you support the idea of a closer EU) to create something that is easily sold. But beyond that, who really cares about the details? Europe will evolve as the US evolved; through the exigencies of history informed by the political culture. In the US the constitution is mostly whatever the people with the most power at any given time want it to be — look at the most recent medical marijuana supreme court ruling.

30

Ginger Yellow 06.16.05 at 8:56 pm

It’s not a question of long vs short. It’s a question of rules vs principles. Personally I would have voted for the constitution, but only on pragmatic grounds. I think it’s a mess and the vast majority of the stuff in it should be in the form of directives, not a constitution. A constitution’s purpose is to bind a body politic together without cementing it. The EU constitution fails on both counts.

31

Antoni Jaume 06.17.05 at 2:03 pm

The actual name is not “constitution” but “treaty establishing a constitution”.

Not that that would change much.

DSW

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