Paradoxically, the only country in the EU where the political debate is regularly stirred up by European issues is the UK. France prides itself, with good reason, on being the founding mother of European integration. And yet, when it comes to an election as crucial as the presidential one, the two main candidates have tended to behave as if the topic is taboo.
The signing of the stability pact by 25 heads of state and government in Brussels; the insistence on austerity of Germany’s Angela Merkel, challenged by Italy’s Mario Monti and 11 other European leaders calling for growth; the enduring plight of Greece and Spain … day after day, the morning headlines tell us how vital these issues have become, and every evening French newscasts show President Nicolas Sarkozy and his Socialist challenger, François Hollande, campaigning as if France were alone. Engaged in an endless discussion of what la République may be about – equality rather than equity, people versus elites, the end of privileges, more teachers and fewer immigrants – the two revel in the same kind of isolationism.
Seeing himself as the spiritual heir of Jacques Delors, Hollande has always vowed to be “a true European”. But he has been careful not to take any public position on the eurozone crisis. The European chapter in his manifesto reads like wishful thinking: we must create growth, we must create eurobonds, we must have a more balanced relationship with Germany. The truth is that the French left has never mended the divisions that ran deep in 2005 over the referendum on the European constitution.
In charge of the Socialist party at the time, Hollande supported it but he was unable to prevent Laurent Fabius, former prime minister and now a political ally, from campaigning against it, together with the leftist fringe of the party. This is his worst political scar. It ached again a few weeks ago when Socialist MPs were split in parliament over the most recent eurozone treaty: many abstained, and some voted against. Hollande’s campaign manager explained that approval of the treaty would have weakened their position, once elected, vis à vis Merkel. As to an alternative plan? No answer on that so far.
At what may have been his last European summit in Brussels, Sarkozy made fun of his rival’s lack of commitment, and gave a long list of what he’d like to achieve during his next term. But he waited until today to praise his own role as the saviour of the euro at a gathering of 50,000 supporters near Paris, to point out the “cowardice” of the Socialists on this issue and others and to exalt his new vision of Europe. He suggested a union that would better protect its citizens from unregulated immigration; help its own industries with a “buy European act”; a Europe where the heads of state and government would definitely overrule the commission.
The only candidates who have talked constantly about Europe in this campaign oppose its very existence: Marine Le Pen on the extreme right, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the extreme left. By using some of their domestic arguments but applying them to the whole of Europe, Sarkozy has cleverly distanced himself from accusations of populism and outpaced Hollande, who the same day delivered a lame address on defence.
Before today’s speech, Michel Rocard, the former Socialist prime minister, said: “The major candidates should tell us about the world, about Europe, and give us their vision of the times to come instead of just demonising globalisation.” Sarkozy has spoken. Hollande can no longer keep evading the European issue, however divisive it is for his own people.
By Christine Ockrent, a journalist and former chief operating officer of France 24 and RFI.