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France and Europe: A Frexit in the making?

By Emmanuelle Schon-Quinlivan, University College Cork (Originally Posted April 4th)

Discussion of the the European Union (EU) typically features very little in French presidential campaigns. However, with the rise of Euroscepticism and the looming Brexit, Europe has now weaved its way into French political debate. The manifestos of the 2017 French presidential candidates cover a range of issues including France’s position on the European stage, the economy and the Eurozone, EU identity and values.

The growth of Euroscepticism in France Euroscepticism has been increasing in France since 2005 when the Constitutional Treaty was rejected by 55% of the French electorate. In parallel, the far-right and Eurosceptic, Front National, has seen its share of votes rise consistently since 2002 to the point where it returned the highest number of French MEPs following the 2014 European elections. The 2017 Presidential election may result in another victory for hard Euroscepticism – a situation with the potential to trigger a so-called Frexit (or French exit from the EU). Crucially, this preference to remove France from the EU is no longer confined to the Front National, but shared by other Presidential candidates.

In 2017, there are 11 candidates contesting the French Presidential election:

  • five who are in favour of a Frexit (Le Pen – Front National, Mélenchon – La France Insoumise, Asselineau – Union Populaire Républicaine, Dupont-Aignan – La France Debout, Cheminade – Independent)

  • four who defend the principles underpinning the EU even if it needs reforming (Hamon – Socialist Party, Fillon – Les Républicains, Arthaud – Lutte Ouvrière, Poutou – Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste)

  • one who is strongly pro-European, Emmanuelle Macron – En Marche!

Of this group of ten, the five major candidates (i.e. those attracting more than 10% of the votes each) are: Mélenchon, Hamon, Macron, Fillon and Le Pen.

Anti-EU Presidential Candidates

Two of the five leading candidates are fully supportive of a Frexit. Interestingly however, Mélenchon and Le Pen represent two separate aspects of Euro-rejectionism as analysed by Startin and Krouwel following the rejection of the 2005 Constitutional Treaty in France.¹ Situated on the extreme-right of the political spectrum, Le Pen roots her rejection of Europe in a traditional pro-sovereignty rhetoric, claiming that France has lost its independence and should reclaim its monetary, legislative, territorial and economic sovereignty. Her plan, if elected, is to ask the French people through a referendum if they want to withdraw from the EU. This would also involve a withdrawal from the Eurozone and a return to the Franc as France’s currency.

At the extreme left of the political spectrum, Mélenchon has run his 2017 campaign on anti-globalisation and anti-neoliberalism themes linked to Euroscepticism. He suggests a two stage-plan for withdrawing from the EU which does not involve a referendum. Plan A proposes a concerted withdrawal from the EU by a number of member states supportive of France’s diagnosis of a misguided EU. If plan A was to fail, plan B proposes to unilaterally withdraw France from the European treaties. This latter form of rejectionism has prospered in France and Mélenchon’s growing support base has seen him overtake the socialist candidate as the fourth most popular Presidential candidate.

Less than three weeks before the first round of the French Presidential election, Mélenchon is polling at 15% and Le Pen at 24% which puts the reservoir of votes for a Frexit potentially around 40% of the French electorate. The remaining 60% of voters largely support the principles and values of European integration, although many may harbour dissatisfaction with certain policies.

Pro-EU Candidates

Pro-EU candidate, Hamon, who is advised by the economist Thomas Piketty, focuses on democratising the functioning of the Eurozone by creating a representative assembly with members drawn from national parliaments and the European Parliament. Fillon’s Gaullist vision of a Europe of sovereign nations proposes the creation of an economic government for the Eurozone, with its own Finance Minister. Both men call for the renegotiation of the Bolkestein directive which allows detached workers to be paid and socially covered by the labour law of their original country and which has been criticised for creating social dumping. Hamon and Fillon further share similar proposals on a Europe of Defence and a Europe of Energy. What they fundamentally differ on is the solution to the migration crisis. Fillon supports reform of the Schengen Agreements – his view of Europe’s future role fits with Juncker’s scenario of ‘do less more efficiently’. In contrast, Hamon supports a reformed EU, based on more democracy and transparency.

The Likely Victor?

This leaves Macron, France’s so-called Obama. Despite being a graduate of the prestigious École Nationale d’Administration (Paris) and having served as Finance Minister for two years, the 39 year old candidate has never been elected to any political office. In political terms, Macron is optimistic regarding France’s future. He grounds France’s future within a strong EU and, more particularly, in a renewed partnership of equals with Germany. He supports a digital single market and an energy single market. He wants to develop a feeling of belonging among young French people by extending the EU’s Erasmus+ exchange to apprentices. Currently, Macron is polling at 24% and seems to be the likely other finalist alongside Le Pen. If this is the case, all polls suggest Macron will win the 2017 French presidential election. However, Macron does not speak to all of French society, and particularly not to the France that has seen public services removed from the regions and local hospitals close. This France is aptly labelled ‘peripheral France’ by the social geographer Guilluy.² This section of French society feels left behind and cut off from the more mobile and educated France that benefits from globalisation. If Macron is elected and he does not deliver a more equal France by 2022, we all know who succeeded Obama …

2017 might be playing with our nerves, but right now it does not appear that Le Pen attracts enough support outside of her core base to secure the French Presidency. That situation may change if over the next five years, the new French President does not deliver on an obligation to create a more egalitarian, democratic and social France. The 2017 French Presidential election is unlikely to lead to Frexit, but it may well set the scene for such a scenario in the future.

1. Startin, N. and Krouwel A. (2013) ‘Euroscepticism Re-galvanized: The Consequences of the 2005 French and Dutch Rejections of the EU Constitution’, JCMS, 51(1), pp. 65-84.

2. Guilluy, C. (2015) La France périphérique: comment on a sacrifié les classes populaires, Paris: Flammarion.

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