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Why the French are against Brexit, but only just

© Stéphane De Sakutin, AFP | British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President François Hollande shake hands in front of the British, EU and French flags at a Franco-British summit on March 3, 2016

Text by Sam BALL

Latest update : 2016-04-30

With Britain less than two months away from its crucial referendum on staying in the EU, polls show the vote is on a knife edge. Across the Channel in France, the UK’s future in Europe is proving almost as divisive.

A poll earlier this month of voters in the UK, France, Germany, Spain and Poland found that the majority of French, 59 percent, want to see Great Britain remain in the EU.

On the one hand, it looks like a ringing endorsement of Anglo-French fraternité in Europe.

But from another angle, the figures reveal a more complicated picture. With roughly 4 in 10 French men and women in favour of Brexit, the French people are more inclined to want Britain out of the EU than any of the other countries surveyed, including the UK itself, where just 34 percent said they were pro-Brexit, compared to 28 percent wishing to remain in the EU and 28 percent who weren’t sure.

In many ways the survey summed up French sentiment towards Brexit: On the whole they want the British to stay, but probably would not be that upset if they didn’t.

‘Go before you destroy everything’

Some, in fact, would be left rejoicing. Among those celebrating loudest would be France’s far-right National Front (FN) party, led by Marine Le Pen, and its supporters.

As a eurosceptic party, a Brexit would boost the FN’s agenda at home. And with polls suggesting Le Pen, as things stand, would beat Hollande in the first round of a presidential election, there are certainly plenty of French voters that share the party’s point of view.

But that’s not the whole story. There are also a fair few number in France who support the EU and would still like to see the back of Britain.

Expat Brits living in Europe fear Brexit consequences

Their view is that the UK, so frequently out of tune with its French and German neighbours when it comes to a vision for the EU, is holding the Union back.

In a scathing 2014 editorial in French daily Le Monde, former French prime minister Michel Rocard urged the UK to “go before you destroy everything”.

Earlier this month, French journalist and political commentator Alain Duhamel posited on radio station RTL that “the French won’t cry if the British leave because they think that Europe has already become too English”.

London’s loss is Paris’s gain?

Some have even suggested that, contrary to the majority view among economists, France could stand to gain financially from Brexit.

In an editorial titled “Employment, growth, finance: What if France said ‘welcome Brexit’?”, L’Obs journalist Donald Hebert speculated that London’s status as a leading financial centre could be significantly damaged by leaving the EU, with banks looking to move their headquarters to the continent.

London’s loss could be Paris’s gain, he said.

A similar argument was made by French essayist and columnist Édouard Tétreau in Le Figaro newspaper.

In the event of Brexit, “thousands of managers, lawyers, financiers, and also the heads of the European subsidiaries of multi-national companies would have to leave the UK to remain within the EU to continue their work”, he wrote.

“Paris is easily the city, along with Berlin, that is best placed to welcome their talents.”

‘I don’t want to scare you, but…’

Nevertheless, the argument that the potential negatives of a Brexit outweigh the positives seems to be just about swaying French public opinion.

Brexit saga exasperates Europe

It is the argument made by President François Hollande’s Socialist government and the majority of the other mainstream parties who believe in the European project.

For them, the UK’s continued participation in the EU is essential for its credibility and quite possibly its survival.

While progress on some EU issues – social policy, for instance – might be easier without the frequently uncooperative Brits, an EU without the continent’s second, and the world’s fifth, largest economy is one with considerably less financial and political clout.

There is also the fear that if Brexit happens it would increase anti-European sentiment not just in France but across the 28-nation bloc, triggering a domino effect that may eventually end in the break-up of the EU.

Hollande has even appealed directly to the British public.

In March, he warned the British there would be “consequences” should they vote to leave the EU.

“I don’t want to scare you, but I just want to say the truth. There will be consequences in many areas: on the single market, on financial trade, on economic development between our two countries,” he said.

The majority of the French press has been equally unequivocal when it comes to their stance on Brexit.

One of the most startling examples came from Le Monde, which went as far as to publish an editorial in English imploring Britain to stay in the EU, warning that “Brexit could be your Waterloo!”, referring to the pivotal battle that put an end to Napoleon’s conquest of Europe.

Former French president Charles de Gaulle, coincidentally responsible for repeatedly blocking the UK’s membership of the EU’s forerunner – the European Economic Community – in the 1960s, once famously said: “France has no friends, only interests”.

Most French today would probably agree that the UK is not much of a “friend” in Europe, but whether an EU that includes the British is or is not in their best interest is far from clear cut.

Date created : 2016-04-30

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