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For French press, UK elections all about EU referendum

© Thierry Charlier, AFP | British Prime minister David Cameron arrives for an European Council summit on March 19, 2015 in Brussels

Text by Joseph BAMAT

Latest update : 2015-05-05

While the French public at large is paying scant attention to this week’s parliamentary elections in the United Kingdom, recent press coverage shows many in France fear that the country is getting ready to ditch the EU for good.

Relatively little ink had been spilt in the French press over Britain’s May 7 vote -- in which Prime Minister David Cameron is trying to fend off opposition Labour leader Ed Miliband and secure a second consecutive term -- until this week.

The ballot has been played up in the British press as one of the most important in the country’s history and is expected to be the closest contest in decades. Yet the French have been far more interested in the Le Pen family drama ripping apart the far-right National Front party, or even the birth of Britain's latest princess.

“It’s normal,” said Philip Turle, a British journalist for Radio France International (RFI) who has spent many years working in Paris. “People in both France and Britain are wrapped up in their own lives and the issues that hit closer to home.”

Philippe Marliere, a professor of French and European politics at University College London, agreed.

“When the French talk about Britain it tends to revolve around the monarchy or Britain’s involvement in the European Union,” Marliere told FRANCE 24.

However, as Election Day approaches, major French newspapers have started weighing in on the British vote, penning editorials and according it front-page importance. And the top campaign issue as seen from this side of the Channel is: Will Britain say ‘au revoir’ to Europe?

Scorn and praise for Cameron

An editorial on Saturday in left-leaning daily Le Monde forewarned of an impending break up.

“Everything appears set for the catastrophic scenario: A British slide out of the EU, almost as if by accident,” Le Monde warned, heaping blame on the conservative Cameron for steadily eroding Europe’s image among constituents and for pledging to organise a referendum on EU membership in 2017, should he be re-elected.

The right-leaning Le Figaro praised Cameron for cutting the country’s deficit by half, boosting growth and decreasing unemployment, declaring his record in office should tip voters toward Tories. But the daily concurred with Le Monde that his flirting with a “Brexit” -- a British exit from Europe -- was misguided and even dangerous.

“If [Cameron] wins a second term, it will be the duty of Europeans to help him out of this trap. Because the EU needs Britain’s energy and recipe for success,” Le Figaro declared in a May 1 editorial, its second on the subject in the past five days.

Different priorities

Both Turle, the British journalist in Paris, and Marliere, the French academic in London, drew attention to the wide gap between French and British concerns.

“Everyone I talk to in France asks me, ‘Will there really be a referendum on leaving the EU if the conservatives win?’. It really is the top issue for French people,” said Turle, adding there is also interest -- and a measure of envy -- over Britain’s 2.5 percent growth rate, even as many British workers wished they enjoyed the job security of their French counterparts.

Marliere said he was tickled by a recent article in Le Monde that claimed the so-called Brexit had dominated campaign debate. “The article got it completely wrong,” the scholar said, adding that voters were far more concerned with austerity, cuts in public spending, the Scottish vote and immigration.

“I think there is a tendency toward simplification,” he said. “Writing a story on a potential EU referendum is easier, you need less on-the-ground reporting and it will do better with the French public.”

Marliere thinks French editorialists are getting something else wrong, too. The magnitude of the shock that a British retreat from the EU would produce in France is likely being overestimated, he said.

“If it ever happens, French people would still envision a future for Europe without the UK. France would regret Britain’s absence, but they would say, ‘Their hearts were never fully in Europe’.”

 

Date created : 2015-05-05

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