Comparative European Politics

, Volume 16, Issue 2, pp 145–170 | Cite as

What were the French telling us by voting down the ‘EU constitution’? A case for interpretive research on referendum debates

  • Claudia Sternberg
Original Article


How to make sense of a popular vote is a question raised once again by the prospect of a Brexit referendum. To date the French rejection of the European Union constitutional treaty’s ratification has been one of the most consequential electoral statements in the history of European integration. Still, what its actual message was continues to puzzle analysts. What were the French telling us? The article approaches this question of from the angle of the discursive processes of meaning making in the public sphere, through arguments, narratives and images. Complementing available explanatory accounts based on survey date or quantitative textual analysis, it presents a non-quantitative interpretive discourse analysis of political ideas providing structures of meaning in the debate around the treaty, as it was reflected in the press. The focus is on discursive and narrative techniques of meaning making and knowledge production. These are situated against embedding webs of beliefs, languages, and traditions. The reading offered presents the debate as structured (i) by the motif of an open-ended search for a better Europe, rather than an outright rejection of the integration project (ii) by a deep opposition between ‘social Europe’ and a world where political agency over market forces is lost, and (iii) by an overarching discourse about reclaiming this agency, popular sovereignty, and asserting the will to influence Europe’s political future.


European Union draft constitutional treaty referendum France interpretive discourse analysis 


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Copyright information

© Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Claudia Sternberg
    • 1
  1. 1.European Institute, University College LondonLondonUK

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