Is France flirting with the idea of Frexit again? Coronavirus is currently provoking a chorus of ‘reprendre le contrôle’ (take back control) across the political spectrum. The epidemic is laying bare France’s dependence on outside states for essentials such as masks, medicines, test kits and ventilators. Even arch-Europhile Emmanuel Macron visiting a French mask manufacturer declared this week: ‘We have to produce more in France, on our territory, from now on to reduce our dependency… we must rebuild our national and European sovereignty’. His reference to Europe is not unusual, but highlighting national sovereignty is.
The second ‘take back control’ stimulant comes from growing irritation with the European Union. Images of Chinese aircraft flying in masks and equipment to stricken Italy, after Germany and France initially placed embargos on the export of protective medical equipment, has provoked embarrassment and anger in France.
The treatment of the ‘Latin countries’ (Italy, Spain and France) by certain ‘northern states’ like Germany and Holland, who are disparaging of the Club Med’s high spending, has riled French politicians such as the Eurosceptic left-wing party leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
The European Council’s recent refusal to sanction European debt mutualisation, as proposed by Emmanuel Macron and eight other members states, is widely seen in France as ‘Euro-egoism’. ‘Lack of European solidarity’, warned the 94-year-old former president of the European Commission Jacques Delors last week, ‘is putting the European Union in mortal danger.’ Delors, who rarely speaks publicly, was head of the Commission from 1985 to 1995, and famously clashed with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, as Sun readers will recall.
This context is reviving the idea of Frexit. The Frexit debate, like a sea serpent, surfaces and submerges. It rose during France’s 1992 Maastricht referendum campaign then submerged. It rose again in the 2005 referendum, when 55 per cent of the electorate rejected a European constitution. Frexit was particularly prominent in the 2017 French presidential election campaign when nearly half of voters cast a ballot for candidates seeking either much greater national sovereignty or withdrawal from the EU. Various forms of Frexit were mooted, from a total exit to reforming the EU around a hard-central core composed principally of the six founding states.
The principal obstacle to Frexit since 2001, other than the ideological, is the practicality of leaving the euro. It was on this issue in particular that Emmanuel Macron was able to humiliate Marine Le Pen in the television debate preceding the second-round run-off, when she could not explain coherently how France would go about leaving the currency. She lost the debate and the election and Frexit slipped beneath the waves once again.
Macron’s point was valid. Frexit would be much harder than Brexit because of the tighter constraints the euro has imposed on its 19 member states. Much like the dire predictions about Brexit, leaving the euro was painted as suicidal for France. But Brexit has not turned out so bad. And some are beginning to think that Frexit might not be as bad either.
Coronavirus has further altered the stakes. With little European solidarity in a major financial crisis the cost-benefit analysis of euro membership is less favourable. Successive French governments have claimed that the euro was over-valued, a source of high unemployment and led to uncompetitive exports for France and the southern states. On 25 March, France’s economics and finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, warned that a European attitude of ‘every man for himself will lead to the disappearance of the eurozone’. Some have seen this as a veiled threat. If so, it would have been unthinkable from a senior French government minister in the past, even at the height of the 2012/13 Greek crisis.
France is playing a high stakes game with Germany and the northern states to obtain debt mutualisation. But with Frexit floating in the background like Banquo’s ghost, the outcome could be even more scary.