A triumph of the right

Europe - The paradox of France's stunning No vote is that, while it leaves Chirac a lame duck, it da

You have to hand it to the French left. Its voters are no fainthearts. They led their country in jumping off Europe's cliff without knowing how high it was or what lay at the bottom. Short of a death wish, that calls for foolhardiness of the most extreme kind.

Their act, as we are already tired of hearing, landed Europe in a grave crisis. It also did grave injury, of course, to President Jacques Chirac and his bemused conservative government, which was swiftly reshuffled from prime minister down. But the great paradox of France's prodigious "no" to the European constitution is that the harm it has done the Socialist opposition looks graver still. While indeed helping the left to cripple Chirac, it threatens to hold back the left's chances of regaining the French presidency for as many long years as it will delay Europe.

That the left could be the voting vanguard of France's winning No, and at the same time self-destruct, just about sums up the political contradictions that made France's referendum such a risky game in the first place. For what is most audible through the shriek of anguish it produced is a new voice, broad and coherent. It is not the strains of the anti-Europe gang of ultra-nationalists, anti-capitalists and communists; it comes from the little people in general, those feeling most vulnerable at the onset of Europe's difficult 21st century: blue-collar and public service workers, clerks, small farmers, shop assistants, and this time the young - in sum, mostly those who tend to vote Socialist.

All along, the Socialist leadership had urged them to vote Yes in the interests of a better-organised Europe. Had they listened, the referendum would have been won easily, because Chirac's mainstream right was bound to support the constitution, as it did. Yet a power rift on the left wrecked those hopes. As long ago as last autumn Laurent Fabius, a former prime minister restlessly positioned as number two in the Socialist leadership, behind the striving Francois Hollande, shocked his colleagues by suddenly changing his tune and calling for a No vote.

Hollande and other Socialist elephants, including Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a former finance minister, and Martine Aubry, mother of the 35-hour week, thought Fabius had taken leave of his senses, though his motive was pretty clear: he aimed to distinguish himself from the others so as to give himself a chance to run for president in 2007, when Chirac's second term ends. Fabius is not the only one sniffing around for the left's candidacy - Lionel Jospin, another former prime minister, and a popular one, hasn't quite reconciled himself to life in the monk's cell - but Hollande believes the spot is his as party leader.

To head off the heavier-hitting Fabius, Hollande called a special Socialist congress to confirm the Yes line on the referendum, and secured a 60 per cent majority of party members against his rival. Chastised, Fabius went quiet, appearing to bow to the demands of party unity. Plainly, however, his case had been made with the public at large, catching on with voters fearful of France's high unemployment and worried about having ever less to spend: the EU constitution on offer, he had argued, was too low on social protection and too high on shameful Anglo-Saxon economic liberalism.

As these arguments gained ground, Fabius further infuriated the PS chief by coming out of his shell and returning to the attack against a Yes vote. This was an open breach of rules on party unity, but by that time it was too late for Hollande to remove him from the party leadership team. On referendum day, nearly 60 per cent of Socialist voters said "No", precisely reversing the vote of the party congress. The sequel to this unexpected turnaround has been painful. Fabius was nowhere to be seen on referendum night, which was unusual for a man who tends to seek the TV arc lamps. He was the one Socialist elephant to shun the cameras altogether, recognising that an appearance could only be taken as crowing. He had no contact in person or by phone with the white-faced Hollande, who let him know the following morning what he thought of his claim to be the PS's candidate for president. "Give up my place to those who haven't respected our party's rules? To those who messed up our campaign? Those who split the party so deeply? My answer, frankly, is no."

Fabius, enjoying his new-found role as champion of the people, eventually popped up before the nation with a wolfish smile 24 hours after the event, seeking to lend gravitas to his parallel role as EU constitution-spoiler. There had to be a change in the way Europe operates, but not, he stressed, a halt to European integration. No one was more European than he ("I'm a European to the marrow"). If "two or three important points" in the constitution were modified, he suggested - deaf to flat EU insistence that there can be no renegotiation of the treaty - then that would do it. His party's task was to listen to what French voters had said.

It seems likely that the Socialists will now shift the left's policy on Europe towards the more regulated economy the French in any event prefer. But can a mere bow to protectionist instincts and greater welfare guarantees both appeal to a confused electorate and rescue the left? Hollande emerges wretchedly disabled from the referendum, while Fabius is despised by his own party. Their harsh split can only undermine any chances the left had of regaining the presidency in two years' time.

Moreover, the crowning paradox of the Socialist voters' leap off the cliff is that, in effect, it has shifted power to the redoubtable Nicolas Sarkozy. "Sarko", head of the dominant conservative UMP party and irrepressible centre-right rival of the president, re-enters government as number two to Dominique de Villepin, once Chirac's determined mouthpiece in opposing George W Bush's war on Iraq. But Sarkozy is the power behind the scenes; he takes the post of interior minister on condition only that his party's policies - that is, his own policies - be pursued from now on.

Sarko, too, parades as the people's champion. He made no secret before the referendum of aiming to replace Chirac, still less so now that Chirac is crippled. But for his overt rivalry with the president, the premiership was his for the taking. By appointing Villepin, an elegant mandarin who has never held elective office, Chirac clings to a semblance of power by his presidential fingertips.

The Sarkozy response to the No vote, however, is quite the opposite of the Fabius push on the social side. Yes, Europe must be more attentive to the little people, or go bust. But reinforcing French-style regulated policy won't help, given that even in its current form it has let them down. The way to meet their fears is to give them something that works, he says, hailing Blairism's free-market success thus far in keeping unemployment down and economic growth up. Given Sarko's astral popularity rating, he is runaway favourite to become France's next president. Did the left's bravehearts jump for nothing?