159. Memorandum From Helmut Sonnenfeldt of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1


  • State’s Assessment of French EC Referendum

Attached (Tab A) is a memorandum from State covering an analysis of the outcome of last Sunday’s referendum2 in France on the European Community (EC). State points that:

—because of the high abstention rate (almost 40% of the eligible) only 36% of those eligible voted “yes,”

—32% of those actually voting, voted “no.” The Communists, who campaigned for “no,” are hailing this result as a victory for them, since they usually get only 18–24% of the national vote.

From the results, State concludes that:

—the outcome was clearly disappointing to Pompidou;

—it should not, however, be regarded as a major defeat for him or his European policy;

—the non-contentious nature of the EC enlargement issue for most Frenchmen (except Communists) accounted for voter apathy, and Pompidou was unable to overcome this apathy;

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Pompidou’s critics within his party will be emboldened, as will the Communists and Socialists;

Pompidou may reshuffle his cabinet, including Chaban-Delmas;

—Internationally, the consequences may be more serious, with Pompidou’s aspirations as a leader of Europe having perhaps been dealt a severe blow;

—There is no reason, however, to think that the President will significantly change his European policy.

Comment: We do not entirely share the emphasis on this assessment that for Pompidou the more serious consequences will be international. To the degree that the President expected to utilize a pro-Europe result to assert his sway over his party, he has lost a great deal domestically. He will have to reconsider any plans which he may have had for dumping Chaban-Delmas or Debré or moving elections up to this summer or autumn. The authority vested in the French presidency under the Fifth Republic, however, makes its incumbent relatively independent of the electorate’s views as far as bold departures in international politics are concerned, if he has the will to make them.

Tab A

French Referendum

By a ratio of two to one, those who voted in Sunday’s referendum in France signified approval of the EC enlargement treaty. However, this favorable outcome was considerably marred by the exceptionally large abstention rate—39.5%—which set a record in French national voting since World War II, if not before. Moreover, the polls had given Pompidou reason to expect that upwards of 70% of those voting would vote “yes.” The actual figure was 68%. The result was that only 36% of the eligible electorate cast an affirmative vote—a clear disappointment for Pompidou and his supporters.

Despite all the Monday morning quarter-backing now going on, we should be careful not to view the results of the referendum as a major defeat for Pompidou or his new departures in European policy. Undoubtedly Pompidou has received a setback and may himself wish that he had not taken the initiative to hold a referendum (legislative ratification of the EC enlargement treaty would have sufficed). However, such setbacks are not uncommon for heads of state or government in complex democratic states.

Victory claims are being made by the French Communist Party, which campaigned for a “no” vote, and by the Socialists who called for abstention. Of those voting, 32% voted “no.” Since the Communists have averaged only 18 to 24% of the vote in recent years, they are [Page 578] crowing loudly that they increased their vote. In fact, part of the “no” vote derived from rightists and disaffected Gaullists who voted “no” more out of spite than conviction. This disaffection factor also explains the 39.5% abstention rate which the Socialists can hardly claim major credit for.

A more general reason for the outcome of the referendum was that the issue of EC enlargement was not contentious for the French electorate (except for Communist-led voters). Even Pompidou’s extensive personal efforts did not succeed in dramatizing the issue or in convincing the average voter that he had a duty to give Pompidou a massive “yes” for his European policy.

Domestically, the results will give new life to the Communists and Socialists and to Pompidou’s critics within the Gaullist movement. Pompidou may take the occasion to reshuffle the government, including the Prime Minister. Over time the fissures in Gaullist ranks will probably widen further. The adverse effects for Pompidou internationally, at least in the short run, may be more serious. His image as a commanding European statesman and his aspirations for France and for himself to play a decisive role in Europe’s future have received a blow. Some Europeans may react with the old feeling that France and its Gaullist leader have gotten a comeuppance. There may also be greater resistance now to recent French efforts within the EC to call the signals and have their way. However, there is no reason as of now to anticipate that Pompidou will make any significant change in the thrust or objectives of his European policy. We will have to await further developments for an indication of how he may wish to modify his tactics.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 678, Country Files—Europe, France, Vol. IX. Confidential. Sent for information. A handwritten note reads: “Thru Haig.” Kissinger initialed the memorandum.
  2. April 23. Tab A was transmitted with a covering memorandum dated April 25 from Eliot to Kissinger.