After the UK’s referendum on membership of the EU, France is now being forced to look at itself in a mirror, and ask whether it still wishes to belong to the community of nations initiated by two Frenchmen, Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman, half a century ago. Will France rally around the European ideal and forge an alliance with Germany to save the EU? Or will it follow the UK and become a gravedigger of the European project? The latter is more likely.
France faces a harsh and divisive campaign leading up to the presidential election in May 2017. After the vote for Brexit, it is hard to imagine that the main candidates will not make Europe one of their main priorities. Meanwhile, the Pew Research Center has recently provided striking new data on what the French think. Pew’s report shows that 61 percent of French people hold unfavorable views of the EU, against 38 percent who view it favorably. Sixty percent of those surveyed said they wished that the French government would focus on the country’s own problems, as opposed to “helping other countries” (36 percent). Fifty-two percent said France should pursue its own national interests rather than take allies into account (43 percent).
The main question for the French political elite is the following: should it open the Pandora’s box of a referendum on France’s continued membership of the EU?
With the exception of two candidates of the extreme right and far left, Marine Le Pen of the National Front and the former Socialist minister Jean-Luc Mélenchon, none of the politicians aspiring to be elected president in 2017—the current occupant of the Elysée Palace, François Hollande, his center-right predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, and centrist ex-prime minister Alain Juppé—anticipated the shocking outcome of the British referendum. Of mainstream politicians, only Bruno Le Maire, the so-called third man of the center-right Les Républicains and a former minister for Europe, has called for a referendum on redefining the European project. (In an interview on June 27, Mr. Juppé said it would be “irresponsible” to hold such a plebiscite in the near future.)
Writing in Le Monde in May, Mr Le Maire said: “Europe does not make us dream anymore.” France needs to “heal the wounds” of the 2005 referendum in which 55 percent of voters rejected the proposed European constitution.
Many commentators regard that referendum as a key moment in recent French and European history. One recalls Jacques Chirac, then president, looking at a loss when confronted with young and middle-aged job seekers during a live television program. Deep misgivings about France’s future in Europe were already gathering.
As Mr. Le Maire said, the French people do not dream about Europe anymore. There is deep skepticism about the whole European project. And were they given the opportunity in a referendum, voters could well administer the kind of treatment to their elites that their counterparts in Britain have just dished out to theirs. Although France is not an insular country, it faces an uncertain future. As has happened in the UK, “Europe” has become the scapegoat for those who feel they have not benefited from globalization.
The Pew survey says that 66 percent of French people think that the EU has failed them economically. The financial crisis of 2008 has left terrible scars. Between 2007 and 2009, unemployment rose by two percentage points. It is around 10 percent today. The age groups most affected are the young (those between 18 and 25) and the over 50s. It is likely that they would vote for Frexit in a referendum.
Populists are rejoicing. The National Front presents itself as a viable alternative to mainstream parties. Ms. Le Pen has already called for a British-style referendum. The far-left Front de Gauche (FG), which has close ties to the trade union that has led strikes against labor market reforms, will push for exiting the EU.
One of FG leaders, Mr. Mélenchon, has announced that he will run for president next year on a Euro-skeptic platform. He said that Brexit is “first and foremost the failure of the German government, of capitalism, and of successive subservient French governments.”
Politicians in these far right and far left parties have no more government experience than the triumphant leaders of the Brexit camp, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson. But unless mainstream politicians can find remedies for France’s malaise, voters may well give the populists a chance. It is time for French elites to take action. If they do not, they risk suffering the same fate as David Cameron.
Philippe Le Corre is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center on the United States and Europe. This article first appeared here.