On Sunday, France goes to the polls in an election which has Europhiles on edge. The country’s place in Europe is, for the first time in its history, at the very heart of the debate and the leading candidates have diametrically opposed views.
For the first time ever, four candidates advocate France leaving the European Union. Also a novelty: one is vociferously pro-European. With the two traditionally dominant parties struggling to hold on to voters, change – for France and for Europe – is in the air. Together with Paris-based partner agency Maarc, Cambre delves into the details and distils what this election means for the future of Europe.
The UK set the scene in June, and French candidates were quick to jump on the bandwagon. The vision of an independent France outside the EU is championed by four candidates spanning the political spectrum from the far right to the far left, who offer differing paths to “Frexit”. Starting on the far right, Marine Le Pen wants to follow in the footsteps of former British PM David Cameron’s, offering a re-negotiation of France’s relationship with Brussels followed by a referendum. France’s membership of the passport-free Schengen zone would be axed immediately. The right-wing “sovereignist” François Asselineau favours directly triggering the EU’s Article 50 upon his election. The left-wing populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon has a slightly more sophisticated offering: his first EU act as president would be to “take emergency and unilateral measures to safeguard the interests of France”, notably by pulling the plug on French participation in the stability pact, the posted workers directive, negotiations of free trade agreements, and the liberalisation of public services. Thereafter, he favours a multilateral renegotiation of the EU treaties leading to a roll-back of EU powers (dismantling for example the European Central Bank and the EU Emissions Trading System). Should he fail to obtain a satisfactory result, he would back leaving the EU. In the Frexiteer category we would also add Jacques Cheminade, the independent candidate who proposes to create a new entity altogether, substituting the “monetary” system with a “real Europe” of “peoples and homelands” centred on big projects of mutual interest – which, really, sounds like a watered down EU.
The EU supporters
Two candidates are actively campaigning to keep France in the EU and to strengthen the Union. Emmanuel Macron, seeking votes from the centre right and centre left, believes that France’s sovereignty is stronger in Europe, and put this message at the centre of his campaign. Macron has set out his own vision for Europe in his manifesto, advocating for a more democratic Union – with conventions to be launched in all Member States to discuss the EU’s priorities and actions for the next five years. Acknowledging that the EU is repeatedly used as a scapegoat by national leaders, Macron’s EU programme seeks to rebuild trust, reinforce the EU’s identity and increase EU power in key areas such as security, internal market or digital. The other pro-EU candidate is the socialist Benoît Hamon, whose project for the EU has much in common with that of his former government colleague Macron: he advocates a “Buy European Act”, further cooperation in the fields of defence and security at European level, and the creation of a Eurozone Parliament.
François Fillon, former Prime Minister and candidate for the country’s centre right Republicans, has been criticised for his lack of a clear EU agenda. His campaign espouses the classic ‘intergovernmentalist’ vision of a Union of strong Member States – with less centralised power – and of course, with France and Germany at its core. One point the candidate does take a clear position on is the EU’s external borders, which he unequivocally would like to close to candidates such as Turkey. In brief, nothing much new to offer to the debate or to French voters. The Gaullist Nicolas Dupont-Aignan also falls into this category, although with his calls for a renegotiation of the EU Treaties to ensure all power resides firmly with the “associated” Member States, his vision of the EU gets close to that of the Frexiteers. Finally, Jean Lassalle, an independent candidate formerly of the French Centrist party, supports a repatriation of powers to the national level in specific fields and for all EU legislation to require approval from national parliaments.
… and those who don’t really know
Some candidates have skilfully shifted the debate to unrelated topics. French labour (communist) candidate Nathalie Arthaud suggests that European workers should create a socialist “United States of Europe”. Philippe Poutou, the far left (anticapitalistic) candidate, argues that the question of France’s membership of the EU is a non-topic, and proposes to annul all free trade agreements, as well as cut global production and distribution chains.
So what does this mean for Europe?
What the line-up for the second round on 7 May will look like is at present a matter of speculation, but it is the first time that a “Frexit” becomes a credible hypothesis. A win for a Frexiteer would be disastrous for the EU, while an intergovernmentalist French president would set Brussels on a course for reform guided by strengthened nationalism. There is also however a real chance that the winning candidate will eagerly espouse a reformed, strengthened EU, with a strong Franco-German axis driving integration forward and a Commission given a clearer mandate to pursue its priorities.
This is what makes these elections so crucial also for Brussels. France is at a tipping point. What is clear however is that France’s relations with the EU will change in some way or another: no candidate is advocating the status quo. So just as the vote will be about France, its society, security, economy, education, health and foreign policy, it will also be about changing the EU – leaving it, or making it fairer, smaller, weaker, faster, nimbler, or smarter. These French elections are actually precisely what the EU needs: a chance to have a genuine debate with voters on what kind of EU they would like to see.
Written in collaboration with Maarc – Agence Partenaire