Britain, the arch-Eurosceptic member of the Union? Think again. France is now more committed to loathing the European Union than Perfidious Albion: it has indeed become the new stronghold of Euroscepticism. Last week, the EU election results were like none other before. For the first time since the end of the second world war, an extreme rightwing party topped a national poll.
Do not be fooled by Marine Le Pen’s down-to-earth demeanour. She may dispense with her father’s antisemitic puns or Islamophobic tirades, but under her leadership the Front National remains an extreme rightwing party; the party which was launched by Marshall Pétain’s apologists and French Algeria supporters in 1972.
How could France, one of the six founding members of the EEC and traditionally a proud architect of European integration, end up with such a state of affairs? On election night the already beleaguered prime minister Manuel Valls described the results as an “earthquake”. Yet the FN’s victory was anything but a surprise.
Opinion polls had long registered that the public have an increasingly negative perception of the EU. A Pew Research Center survey carried out in May 2013 showed that more and more French voters believed that “membership of the EU is a bad thing”. Only 41% had a “good opinion” of the EU, as against 43% in Britain. (In 2012, 60% of French viewed the EU favourably.) The question of further economic integration turns out to be the most contentious issue: only 22% French people support it, compared with 36% in 2012.
France’s Euroscepticism ought to be qualified as it differs from the British brand. Bar the FN and Debout la République (a neo-Gaullist micro-party), there are no self-professed Eurosceptic parties in the French political landscape. From the radical left (Left Front) to the conservative UMP, all main parties are officially dedicated to European integration. On the far left, in the Parti Socialiste, in the Green Party and on the conservative right, some still support a federal Europe. The mainstream media and business also pay lip service to the European cause.
British Euroscepticism has traditionally been of a “hard’ type. It implies a fundamental opposition to the idea of political and economic integration and expresses itself as a principled objection to the current form of integration in the EU on the grounds that it offends deeply held values, such as national sovereignty. In contrast, “soft” Euroscepticism involves contingent or qualified opposition to European integration and may express itself in terms of opposition to specific policies or in terms of the defence of the national interest.
However radical its public expression may be today, French Euroscepticism belongs to the “soft” category. It is not a principled opposition to the EU or the pursuit of integration, but it is essentially an objection to the nature of policies being implemented by EU institutions. It is also a protest against the decision-making process in the communitarian bodies. In principle, the FN does not object to France being a member of the EU and it does not advocate leaving the Union altogether either.
The French are feeling increasingly disillusioned when it comes to the EU because they regard it as promoting an aggressive brand of free-market economics. Far from protecting them from economic competition and social dumping – a race to the bottom in which employers reduce wages and employees’ benefits in order to attract and retain investment – the EU is seen as an entity that undermines the French concept of what should be a European “good life”. This concept is associated with solidarity, economic equality and a pro-active welfare state. What is more, the EU has dramatically failed to deliver on jobs and economic growth. France has currently 5.9 million unemployed, taking into account all categories, and 10 million people live on less than €900 per month. Rightly or wrongly, the public believe that the EU is as responsible as the French government for downgrading their living conditions.
In the 1980s and 1990s, François Mitterrand and Jacques Delors had tirelessly promoted the cause of a “social Europe”. Mitterrand had urged the public to back a more “market-friendly” Europe, promising that France’s partners would in turn concede elements of political and social integration to create a Europe of the people. Voters obliged, although reluctantly – the Maastricht Treaty was only approved by a narrow majority of votes in 1992. At the time, the seeds of discontent were starting to take root.
The referendum on the European Constitutional Treaty in 2005 was a turning point. After a passionate public campaign which had politicised large sections of the population, the French rejected the constitution by a resounding majority. One clause in the treaty concentrated the French resistance to it: the promotion of “free and unfettered competition” between member states. This proposition was seen in France as the prelude to ever more social dumping. The result was exceptional given that the whole French establishment had called for a yes vote. Two years later, heads of governments ratified the Lisbon Treaty, a repackaged version of the constitution. This time, the people were not consulted. Nicolas Sarkozy candidly acknowledged he could not let the French vote the “wrong way” again.
The 2014 European campaign in France was nothing like the British one. The FN, the most Eurosceptic party, hardly campaigned on immigration. It instead focused on the question of the euro. Opposition to the euro offered Le Pen an important element of demarcation since no other major party was officially against it. This stand allowed the FN to come across as more radical than the UMP, the Parti Socialiste and the establishment. She was also able to capture the mood of the nation far better than her rivals as support for FRexit [France exiting the Euro] is now gaining momentum.
The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership was also debated during the French campaign. According to its critics, the purpose of Tafta [Transatlantic Free Trade Area] is to remove the regulatory differences between the US and EU member states. The agreement would grant big business the power to sue governments which try to defend their citizens. It would allow secretive panels of lawyers to overrule the will of national parliaments and annihilate governments’ legal protections. The FN singled out Tafta, describing it as an “ultraliberal, anti-democratic, anti-economic and antisocial war machine”.
A recent Ifop poll shows that a growing minority of French people see the euro as an obstacle to prosperity and even to peace in Europe. The idea that France should abandon the euro so as to resolve its current economic crisis has been gaining momentum over the past year. Mainstream economists are adopting an anti-euro stand. Critics argue that the euro was supposed to create a space of protection against globalisation. But by preventing devaluation, the single currency has resulted in a maximised zone of economic confrontation between member states. Thus leaving the euro would mean a return to peace. The euro was presented to the people as an economic panacea, but it has in fact accentuated disparities between member states and ruined southern Europe while securing the exports of northern member states, notably Germany.
François Hollande is accused on the left of having chosen to safeguard the currency and of sacrificing sectors of the French industry, making thousands of workers redundant. Some fear that a debate on the euro would strengthen the FN and encourage further demands for a return to national sovereignty, a theme which is increasingly popular across various categories of voters. Aurélien Bernier, a leftwing author, argues that Le Pen’s success is partly due to the fact that there is no actual challenge to the euro from the left.
Her victory can be explained by several factors: the rightwing neo-liberal policies of Hollande, the inability of the Left Front to offer a plausible alternative to Hollande’s policies and the cases of corruption involving several UMP leaders. Ordinary people, the “left behind” of the economic recession, want, therefore, to protest and inflict the maximum damage to establishment parties by voting for the FN. Alexis Tsipras, the leader of leftwing party Syriza, has recently declared: “Austerity has led to the creation of political monstrosities such as Nigel Farage’s Ukip.” There is no doubt that Marine Le Pen’s Front National and French Euroscepticism prosper on the political cynicism and ineptitude of President Hollande and of mainstream parties.
Philippe Marlière is Professor of French and European Politics, University College, London.