After years of running smoothly along its predetermined path, the drive toward a United States of Europe seems to have lost wind, especially in France, the place it more or less originated.  It looks as if another trend is gathering strength in the country; it points in exactly the opposite direction, as if it were a rejuvenated form of the infamous nationalism that plagued Europe throughout the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries.  Its promoters call themselves souverainistes, and the fight is on between supposedly modern Europhiles and supposedly archaic and backward nationalists, who claim that France must not dissolve into a more or less indiscriminate province of a supranational state but retain her status as a lead actor on the world stage.

All this is full of furia francese and bears a more or less Gaullist hue (Frenchmen should be proud to be French), but what does it truly mean?

Sovereignty has been a particularly popular political motto in France ever since the 18th century.  Apart from setting man on an equal footing with God, the claim that “the people” should be “sovereign” bore a definite hostility toward French monarchy.  Something had to be done about political sovereignty because it was claimed to be unjustly monopolized by the king: The demand for sovereignty meant a demand for democracy.  So why is democracy again threatened in France?  Let us list the possibilities.

Since “the people” is but the sum total of all the citizens, the sovereignty of the people actually means the sovereignty of every citizen.  Criticism of monarchical power amounted to a demand that each citizen be a monarch.  To make this happen was Rousseau’s purpose in his famous Social Contract.  Now, could it be that, all of a sudden, some people have realized how little real sovereignty any given citizen actually enjoys in French democracy?  Could it be that there is a sudden realization of how much arbitrariness the average citizen has to endure from his supposed representatives, or from French bureaucracy?  Since, in France, this “sovereigntist” trend was initiated precisely by representatives of the people, this interpretation, at least, may be doubted.

In any case, what triggered the “sovereign-tists’” stance was the building of the European Community: To them, French democracy is threatened not from within but by other European nations bent on uniting and absorbing France.

But what was, if nothing else, at least a logical attitude in 1793 has lost any consistency today.  Back then, France stood alone as a democratic state against a European monarchical coalition; nowadays, France cannot claim to be democracy’s champion against monarchical fiendishness—and, of course, no supporter of sovereignty upholds this claim.  So the French “sovereigntists” seem unconsciously to look for a way to reenact the part of their Jacobin ancestors: What they are up against is some kind of more or less explicit antidemocratic propensity, lurking in European institutions.  Europe, they claim, even democratic Europe, entails the election of representatives too far removed from the citizen and the setting up of a bureaucracy just as remote from the citizen—both impossible for him to check—and therefore behaving in an increasingly despotic way.  The Brussels commission, in particular, is doomed to be a nonelective body of self-supporting managers gone crazy for regulations.

This pail holds no democratic water.  For the same cause producing the same effects, the only difference between Brussels’ bureaucracy, and, say, French state bureaucracy is one of scale.  But then, what is democratically wrong with that?  Democracy is universalist by definition.  If a democratic society is basically a body bonded together by the consent of each citizen (a contract), why is it that this contract could not be extended to 200, instead of 55, million contracting parties?  Why couldn’t the United States of Europe be, just like the United States of America, a conglomerate of democracies that decide to pool their respective democratic processes together?  If democratically elected representatives and legally designated bureaucrats are uncontrollable, it is democracy that stands accused, not its size.  Besides, who can reasonably assert that a purely French bureaucracy is any less despotic than a European one would be?  There have been plenty of cases in which a European regulation actually helped French citizens against the petty encroachments of parochially national ones.  In other words, the democratic argument against Europe doesn’t stand any analysis, even from a purely logical viewpoint.

The case against Europe must therefore rest on other foundations.  There are only two conceivable ones.  The first is economic and social discrepancy.  European nations may have diverging economic interests or heterogeneous social or demographic structures.  For instance, the French standard of living is arguably higher than, say, that of Greece.  France could refuse to share her wealth.  Well, I have not heard of any French souverainiste indulging in the argument that there should be some kind of standard of property for prospective citizens . . .

The second argument against promoting the United States of Europe (and actually the most crucial one) is the necessity to defend the spiritual or cultural identity of France.  As many have pointed out, the essence of France may not lie in her regime but beyond it in her long history, which has shaped a common mentality, a common reverence for certain things or ideas—in other words, has forged a mass of disconnected individuals into a spiritual entity on which they all are dependent today.  However similar it may be to other European ones, the particular spirit that is the soul of France still has something unique.  Obviously, blending it into a European melting pot amounts to erasing it progressively or reducing it to some quaint folklore that attracts tourists but does not weave citizens together.

There is, however, a basic disagreement among French “sovereigntists” about this argument.  No wonder.  While love of democracy means the individual’s love of his own sovereignty, love of France as a person is just the reverse, for it means the subordination of the individual to something he values more than his own self (even though this particular spirit need not be like a prison to him: The best way to conceive of anything universal is to become aware of a commonness among differences).  But this is anathema to democratic logic: It is no coincidence that there is no more widely upheld belief in contemporary France than tolerance, openness to other ways of life, respect for other people’s religious creeds, love of mankind.  One could almost marvel at this second coming of Christ, were it not that it all too strangely matches the basic democratic requirement that any man has a right to be exactly what he wishes to be: i.e., a right to pull all the stops, including precisely his own culture, seen from then on as a shackle to his freedom, a restraint upon his rights, a hindrance to his pleasures—in other words (as this very culture claims to be), a bond.  (Why on earth shouldn’t I have the right to be “gay” or buy Chinese shirts?)  There are therefore two entirely different kinds of sovereigntists: the true ones who are naturally entirely outside the political establishment (a patriot must be a Nazi) and the official ones whose stand is precisely what is investigated here.

Then last June’s rejection of the European constitution by the French has to be explained anew, since it might look as if the sovereigntists’ views, and especially the conservatives’, had carried the vote.  Appearances are misleading: Those who defended the spirit of France (so readily accepted as narrow-minded chauvinist pigs by dominant democratic individualism) would never have been in a position to look like winners if they had not had the paradoxical support of the far left.

Traditionally, the French left is ecstatic about the waning of nations.  French socialism has always stood for the international unification of proletarian mankind  against bourgeois nationalism.  (Hail to Karl Marx!)  But there are two main kinds of socialism in France.  Some insist that socialism need not breed poverty: They support some measure of economic liberalism as necessary to the general welfare, with the provision that wealth be redistributed.  They secretly endorse the liberal faith in the virtues of the international market.  In other words, they are social democrats and, therefore, traitors to the cause of real socialism according to the other trend of socialists, the communists.  The latter are the self-appointed guardians of all social benefits, acquired rights, and state protection, a policy they enforce whatever the cost in the key sectors of the French economy their unions control (power production and distribution, transportation, the media’s printing presses, etc.).  In last June’s referendum, they took sides with the conservatives, under the guise of blue-blooded nationalists, out of devotion not to the idea of nation but to their own position: They banked on the fear that socialist Europe might be overwhelmed by American-dominated liberalism and, therefore, would offer less social protection than the old national framework.  French sovereignty meant to them the preservation of their grip on France—communist sovereignty over France.  (In this, they had the additional help of the extreme left: Stalin and Trotsky went some way together before ripping at each other’s throats.)

Hence, it appeared as if the “sovereign-tists” had won a round, when, actually, the true supporters of France joined forces with their arch enemies, the promoters of a communist France, while the tiny fraction of officialdom’s sovereigntists played the part of the famous fly stinging the horses, thus claiming to be pulling the coach.

Henceforth, the last and very simple question: What are these “sovereigntists,” or at least their chief leaders?  I think the answer is simple: politicians who have gotten themselves a niche.