Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
March 9, 2005

Ex-French leader visits Philadelphia
He talked of the gradual merger of European nations, and how it was little understood here.

A founding father of the European Union's new constitution came to Philadelphia last night to pay homage to a place that knows a thing or two about constitutions.

Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the former French president who developed the European constitution that is awaiting ratification, said Europe's charter had generated as little excitement in America as the U.S. Constitution did in Europe 218 years ago.

"Both were largely or even totally ignored on the other side of the Atlantic," Giscard told an audience at the National Constitution Center.

As the Europeans mistook the importance of the new nation in North America, Americans underestimate the importance of the gradual merger of European nations into a unified political and economic entity, he said.

"Both were wrong, history did and will teach us," Giscard said in a 30-minute address sponsored by the constitution center and the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia.

Charming, witty and demonstrating an impressive knowledge of the American founders, Giscard was the headline event during an evening of warm Franco-American declarations. The recent sniping between the two nations over the war in Iraq was brushed aside, replaced by an emphasis on common heritage.

"The DNA of America has so many French genes in it," said Richard Stengel, the chief executive of the constitution center on Independence Mall.

Giscard, president from 1974 to 1981, voiced approval of the recent European visits by President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who offered support for a strong Europe. He noted it was a sentiment "not articulated before," when the Bush administration openly sought to divide old and new Europe.

But mostly Giscard, 79, talked about the legal structures of government.

Last year, a group he headed finished drafting a European constitution, the latest manifestation of a gradual merger that started 40 years ago when the European Community was created.

Giscard often referred to Philadelphia's experience as the Europeans drafted their constitution.

The comparisons frequently fell short, however. Giscard noted that the EU constitution contained little of the powerful "We the People" language in the American Constitution.

And while the U.S. Constitution was written from scratch at the end of a great war of independence by representatives of 13 colonies with a population of 3.5 million, the EU constitution had to be crafted to satisfy 25 nations with a population of 455 million who speak many languages.

"The process of the European Union is to be evolutionary, not revolutionary," Giscard said.

Giscard's visit was also intended to rally support among Europeans - especially the French - who live in America but who can vote in a forthcoming referendum on the constitution.

The European measure must be approved by all 25 EU nations. France and seven other member states will hold referendums, while the remaining countries are leaving the decision to their legislatures.

Lithuania, Hungary, Slovenia and Spain have endorsed the constitution. home page   
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