By Alain Hertoghe
Two events this spring, with no apparent link, took the French establishment by surprise. "Brice de Nice" (Brice from Nice), a silly comedy about a post-adolescent trying to surf the flat Mediterranean, was a runaway hit, selling more than two million tickets in the first two weeks. Around the same time, opinion polls showed that French voters soured on the European Constitution, with the nons regularly outnumbering the ouis.
A happy coincidence, this popularity of Brice and the unpopularity of the Constitution, that no French pundit or politician seems to have remarked on. And yet the blockbuster provides a wonderful metaphor for French attitudes about an enlarged EU, the rise of China and India, the globalized economy, not to mention terrorism and the spread of WMDs, that hegemon America, and much else.
But let's first get to Brice, from Nice, the famous beach resort on the French Côte d'Azur. Imagine the male version of a thirty-something bimbo with bushy bleached hair, dressed in an undersized yellow T-shirt and black shorts too big for him, along with canary-colored trainers. He's a spoiled kid who gobbles-up his Nutella toast sandwich every morning before going with his surfboard to the beach to wait for his wave. A birdbrain who erects in his room an altar to Bodhi (Patrick Swayze), the hero of "Point Break," his cult movie, whose lines he knows by heart. A big baby who asks himself what it must be like to have to work, since he's never had to try himself, as he lives off a fortune made by his Mafioso father in laundering money.
And of course, Brice doesn't even know how to surf. Worse: The smallest wave freaks him out. When an unfortunate series of events leads him to the French Atlantic coast for a surfing competition, he brags about his certain victory, but ends up knocked out by his own board.
Beyond being dim and pretentious, the fool from the Côte d'Azur shows himself to be as nasty as a child, making fun of everyone and everything. Nobody earns his approval, including people who're far more successful. Convinced of his own superiority, Brice ridicules all that crosses his path. He calls it the "jabbing," and it's the only sport that he actually plays.
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Anyone casually familiar with France will recognize plenty of well-developed national characteristics in the "Brice attitude." But the faux-surfer's approach to life also helps explain why the offspring of Marianne today feel like saying "merde" to the European Union and its Constitution, and yesterday said "merde" when the United States invaded Iraq.
At the beginning of the 21st century, the French behave like spoilt children who refuse to grow up in order to avoid facing the realities of the world that they dislike. As with the ancient Gauls, they're worried that the skies of globalization might fall on their heads. Like Brice from Nice, they want to reap the benefits of the "American dream," but without touching the "French way of life."
Wistful about their imagined greatness in the past, the French endlessly wait for the wave of economic growth and world power to reach their beaches here in Old Europe. But they don't want to work more than 35 hours a week, while taking some of the longest paid holidays in the planet. Or to seriously reform their public services and nanny-state, so rich in civil servants and tax money. They preserve labor and tax codes that discourage enterprise. With all their tax euros, too, they're not ready to spend much on their security or defense.
True to the spirit of Brice, the French hold others responsible for their difficulties. And who are these others? The ultra-capitalist Anglo-Saxons ogres, of course!
If the Yes vote -- which by early May came back to even, before the Nos regained the momentum in polls this weekend -- comes out victorious, it'll only be because the supporters of the Constitution (the government, the mainstream opposition, all the media) will have finally managed to convince public opinion that the EU can be the best shield for France to protect itself from the capitalist tsunami ravaging the rest of the world. That's exactly how Jacques Chirac pitches the case for oui. During a May 3 television appearance, the French President assured viewers that the Constitution was the "daughter" of the 1789 Revolution.
The referendum campaign has taken a surreal turn. As political parties from the right-wing government or the left-wing opposition promise voters that the new European treaty will protect them from economic liberalism, the chief champions of No denounce the Constitution as the Trojan horse for the most savage form of capitalism. The far right and far left stand together against the world, in the shape of the EU Constitution, as does former socialist Prime Minister Laurent Fabius, who in office was considered more or less market-friendly, and the largest trade union, the CGT.
Both camps reacted in hysteria to the prospect of a law that would liberalize services within the EU, warning of an invasion of Polish plumbers or Latvian painters who'll steal work, and bread, from the French. The European Commission gave up, thinking -- strangely -- that its submission would help the yes vote.
By a funny coincidence, if France votes down the Constitution May 29, the European Union would continue to be managed under the Treaty of Nice, signed in 2000 in Brice's hometown. That text, in fact, gives France less power than the new Constitution in the decision-making European Council. On its own and in its Charter of Fundamental Rights, the Constitution would also extend to the rest of the Continent such imminently French concepts as a social market economy, public services and the cultural exception.
But the inhabitants of "douce France" may be hoping that their refusal to sign off on a new stage of the European project will bring back the good old days. If so, do they expect that the 24 other members will say, merci, and agree to fight to build a Europe in the image of France? Perhaps the French are dreaming that at the end of the tale, as in Brice de Nice, there will be a happy ending: A super wave of growth and power will come like in a dream and that they'll surf it like the Gods.
© Wall Street Journal Europe, May 18, 2005