How Brexit reshuffled French politics ahead of election year

Geoffroy Van der Hasselt, AFP | Both French President François Hollande and opposition leader Nicolas Sarkozy have seized on Brexit to boost their chances for 2017.

With a few notable exceptions, French politicians warned Britain against quitting the European Union. But since UK voters chose otherwise on June 23, all have scrambled to spin the fallout in their favour ahead of critical elections in 2017.


Reflecting on Britain’s uneasy relationship with the European Union, the late Michel Rocard, a former French prime minister, once pleaded with the UK to leave a union it had never loved. “Go before you wreck everything,” wrote the veteran Socialist, who died on Saturday after a long battle with cancer. Rocard’s words have acquired a special resonance since British voters chose to heed his advice on June 23, electing to quit the EU in a shock referendum result. They have been echoed by much of the French political establishment, fearful that British foot-dragging will prolong uncertainty and inflict further damage on the EU’s fragile economies.

On Friday, even as he marked the centenary of the Battle of the Somme with British royals and politicians, French President François Hollande urged the UK not to delay its departure from the 28-nation bloc. “The decision has been taken; it cannot be delayed and it cannot be cancelled,” Hollande told reporters. The French president said a speedy Brexit “would avert all the uncertainties and instability, especially in the economic and financial domains. The faster it goes, the better it will be”.

French against Brexit - but only just

France’s Socialist leader has made it clear that Britain will not be able to cherry-pick just what it wants from the EU in its future relationship, especially when it comes to free movement of people. He is keen to send a strong message with Marine Le Pen's anti-EU National Front poised to make a strong showing in the 2017 presidential election, and clamouring for a referendum on “Frexit” – a French exit from the EU. But his determination also reflects the belief that the turmoil unleashed by British voters may amount to an opportunity: a last-gasp chance to finally deliver on his key campaign promise of a “new start” for Europe.

Red carpet

Hollande, the most unpopular French president on record, is not the only one to see Brexit as an opportunity. Several French columnists have hailed the prospect of a “new beginning for Europe”, free of British exceptionalism. Brexit, they argued, is likely to re-emphasise the centrality of the Franco-German tandem to European governance and integration. It would also leave France as the sole member with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, thereby bolstering its credentials as the EU’s voice on the international stage.

Last weekend, at a gathering of policymakers and business leaders in the southern French city of Aix-en-Provence, senior officials sought to put a positive spin on a seismic event that has roiled financial markets and plunged Europe into uncertainty. “We shouldn’t just put up with Brexit,” said Pierre Moscovici, France’s EU commissioner for economic affairs. “We should forge ahead; it can be a good opportunity.” Echoing his view, IMF director Christine Lagarde said: "Europeans must find a way out to come out on top of Brexit. Now the English are 'gone' (...) there are maybe a certain number of things that will be able to be done now they are no longer at the table.”

Business leaders are hoping turmoil in the City of London may benefit France's financial industry – the very one Hollande described as his “adversary” during the 2012 presidential campaign. The British vote has revived the long-standing “red carpet” dispute between Paris and London, with French politicians and business leaders – including Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron – now seeking to lure the British capital’s anxious financial institutions, much as UK Prime Minister David Cameron had sought to seduce French bosses horrified by Hollande’s talk of a 75 percent wealth tax. Only French Finance Minister Michel Sapin warned against adopting a “divide the spoils” attitude. “I think that would be totally improper and harmful,” he cautioned. “We should respect the British vote.”

‘Invent another Europe’

Respecting – or at least heeding – disgruntled voters has become the new mantra of French politicians as they seek to position themselves ahead of the 2017 election. France is the country where support for the EU has fallen the most this year (down to 38%), according to the Washington-based Pew Research Center. "In a country that is increasingly eurosceptic, even politicians who are historically pro-European like Hollande must be careful," François Miquet-Marty, head of the Viavoice polling institute, told Reuters news agency. While the French remain largely attached to EU membership, polls over the past few years consistently showed a majority want Europe to have less power, Miquet-Marty said.

Video: Brexit gloom for British tourists in Paris

Analysts warn that Hollande – who is yet to announce a bid for re-election – must navigate a fine line between tackling this growing euroscepticism in his own country and reaffirming France’s ambition to be in the EU’s driving seat alongside Germany. In his first comments after the British vote, the French president said the EU needed to be more democratic, less intrusive, and better at fostering growth – though he did not specify how. "Europe must be understood and controlled by its citizens,” he said in a televised address. “Europe must act quickly where it is needed and must, once and for all, let member states handle what is their exclusive domain."

His prime minister, Manuel Valls, struck a more ominous tone, suggesting the Brexit vote revealed a malaise within Europe that had been ignored for too long. “At stake is the break-up pure and simple of the union," Valls warned. "Now is the time to invent another Europe.” The French PM has since taken aim at an unpopular free trade deal the EU is negotiating with the US, claiming it would hurt Europe’s economy and serve as "a breeding ground for populism". On Sunday he threatened to stop applying EU rules on so-called “posted” workers, which allow for pay differentials between local workers and other EU nationals and have been blamed for French job losses.

“Valls has realised that a number of EU policies are deeply unpopular with the French public,” said political analyst Thomas Guénolé, arguing that the prime minister’s tough new stance was “based on fluctuating opinion polls”. In an interview with FRANCE 24, Guénolé said French politicians’ reactions to the Brexit vote were symptomatic of a “disconcerting” lack of preparation across the board – one that mirrors the chaotic improvisation now taking place across the Channel. “Only Le Pen's far right has a clear strategy – to vote out, like Britain,” he said, though adding that the National Front faced a new challenge on the far left, where firebrand veteran Jean-Luc Mélenchon has also called for an in-out referendum if Europe fails to end austerity.


In contrast, Guénolé likened the response from leaders of the opposition Les Républicains, France's mainstream right, to a “spectacular cacophony”. Nicolas Sarkozy’s party is gearing up for a high-stakes primary to designate its candidate in 2017, with the former president and a dozen other contenders vying for the nomination. Before the Brexit vote, both Sarkozy and his main rival, Bordeaux mayor Alain Juppé, had spoken out against holding an EU referendum in France. Now both have come out in favour of a vote – not on membership of the bloc, but on a new EU “treaty” or “project”.

Brexit: How Britain ran out of friends

Juppé, a consensual politician who enjoys broad support among centrists, said France, Germany and other core members should work on a new EU project that would be put to a referendum, while Sarkozy claimed the job could be done “before the end of the year” by France and Germany alone. The former president, whose core support among party members is growing again, said Paris and Berlin should present a simplified, five-point text and “ban Brussels technocrats from turning it into a juridical monster”.

Guénolé said Sarkozy's proposals – which include returning some powers to national governments, rewriting the Schengen rules on border-free travel, and ruling out Turkish accession to the EU – were likely to resonate with members of his Les Républicains (formerly UMP) party, who will play a key role in designating the candidate for 2017. Sarkozy has seized on the Brexit fallout to cast himself as a steady hand able to steer France and Europe through the crisis. Both he and Juppé have made trips to London since the UK referendum, in part to hear the concerns of the French community about Brexit.

But Christophe Bouillaud of the Institut d’études politiques in Grenoble said the failure to take into account other EU countries, most notably Germany, marked a major flaw in the strategy adopted by Sarkozy and his rivals. “All their proposals of a great overhaul [of Europe] are strictly ‘Franco-French’,” he told Le Figaro, warning that such a stance would have “zero impact” on a European scale. “France can no longer impose its will on other EU members,” Bouillaud argued. He said the Brexit saga had highlighted at least one glaring paradox: that nationalists and far-right groups across Europe are now better at coordinating their efforts than the continent’s traditionally Europhile mainstream parties.


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