Patrick Marnham

Frexit – oui ou non?

Britain’s EU vote has thrown French politics into turmoil, too

Frexit – oui ou non?
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In France, Brexit has provoked resentment and shock. For many years-Britain has been seen in both Paris and-Brussels as the European ‘bad boy’, out for what it can get and intending to give as little as possible in return. The first news was greeted with headlines such as ‘Can Europe-survive?’ but there was also a note of relief: ‘End of 40 years of love-hate’. Even before the referendum, Emmanuel Macron, the finance minister, had denounced the British record in Europe, claiming that the-United Kingdom had hijacked the great project and diverted the Union from its political destiny in order to reduce it to a single market. Last week, as hostilities within the Labour party and among the ‘Brexit’ leadership erupted, Le Monde presented the story as a Shakespearean epic — ‘Tragic week for Britain as the kingdom’s political system is shattered’.

There is little interest in France in the possibility of a second British referendum and growing anger and astonishment that no plans appear to have been made in London for managing a dangerous situation for both Europe and France. With the British departure, the Union loses 15 per cent of its GDP and 40 per cent of its military capacity. And the eight remaining member states outside the eurozone find that they now represent only 14 per cent of the Union’s wealth. Furthermore, as the government is well aware, France’s largest positive trading balance with any country (currently--€12 billion a year) is with the United Kingdom.

Amid all this excitement, the-unexpected sight of Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front, sticking a Union Jack into her breakfast croissant with cries of ‘Frexit — Our Turn Next!’ has done little to calm the public mood.

But the greater part of the political class has decided that the way to deal with ‘this disaster’ is not to abandon the European Union but to strengthen it. Gaining public support for this programme will be no easy task: 61 per cent of French voters are hostile to the European Union. Among those the French blame for this unpopularity are Angela Merkel, for encouraging immigration; President Hollande, for a failure to reduce unemployment; and the entire European Commission, for inefficiency and-losing contact with the people it purports to govern. There is also — something new in Paris — an increasing hostility towards Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the Commission. Even convinced Europhiles see the one-time prime minister of Luxembourg as a bureaucratic dinosaur who behaves as though he were the head of a nonexistent federal state.

The French government’s instinctive first reaction was to fall back on the traditional refuge of the Franco-German axis.-Together France and Germany provide one third of the European Union’s population and half of its GDP, but the old ‘special relationship’ is not the force it used to be and France has become very much the weaker partner. François Hollande has spectacularly failed to keep his promise to reform and strengthen the French economy, and when Chancellor Merkel was criticised last year for her mass immigration policy, the president failed to offer her any public or practical support. The consequent loss of French influence became apparent last March, when Angela Merkel negotiated the ‘No visa’ agreement between Turkey and the European Union and the services of the Quai d’Orsay were not required. This is bitterly resented among leaders of the Republican party on the French right. They blame the president and have coined the word Hollandexit in the fervent hope that this will soon be the case.

It is widely agreed on right and left that, in the national interest, the European Union must now be reformed, by redesigning Schengen, recruiting an effective European border police force, reforming the Commission and reinvigorating the euro-economy. But with ten months to run before the-presidential election and the pre-election campaign hotting up, the national interest may take a back seat.

Already one young Republican candidate, Bruno Le Maire, seeking to increase his support, has called for a French referendum on Europe, and another right-wing hopeful, ex-prime minister François-Fillon, has publicly expressed some sympathy for the British result. Mr Fillon wants a new-fundamental treaty which limits the-powers of the Commission to areas that have first been authorised by each of the member states, and which prioritises European-security, immigration control and-energy autonomy. He argues openly for the old Gaullist model of ‘a Europe of nation states’ and like others in France fears a situation where Europe’s economic superpower-dictates to all other member states.

Meanwhile the former president Nicolas Sarkozy, president of the Republican party and one of the leading contenders for the right-wing ticket next year, is working on popular unrest over mass immigration from the Middle East. In his public meetings he has been taking an increasingly-patriotic and even nationalistic tone, speaking of the ‘tyranny of minorities’ and ‘the-dominant ideology of multiculturalism’. And he has denounced the visa agreement with the Turkish government as ‘shameful’. He-advocates a redefinition of the Schengen area, so that free movement is limited to EU citizens and internal border controls are-reimposed for everyone else, and is flirting with the possibility of support for an anti-Schengen referendum.

For now, Marine Le Pen is content to play a long game. She has fallen uncharacteristically silent while her rivals for the right-wing vote outbid each other in finding some merit in her party’s policies.

The banker Baron David de Rothschild recently dismissed the possibility of Frexit as ‘a catastrophe’ since it would mean exiting the euro, leaving the shelter of the German economy, returning to a heavily devalued franc and carrying the weight of a national debt that equals 96 per cent of the country’s GDP. Putting it more bluntly, another-former prime minister Alain Juppé, mayor of Bordeaux and a leading candidate for the right-wing nomination, has said: ‘There is no future for France outside Europe.’

Mr Juppé has also pointed out that any talk of a French referendum on membership of the present European Union is-extremely dangerous. As mayor of Bordeaux he is aware that the rural district of the Médoc, north of the city and site of Château Lafite Rothschild, voted strongly for the National Front in the latest regional and European elections. This shows the extent of anti-European feeling across France. Immigration is not a political issue in the Médoc.

Marine Le Pen will campaign for the presidency on a ‘Frexit’ platform and the polls currently place her as the winner of the first round. The only objective ally she has in her demands for ‘Frexit’ is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the pro-Communist presidential hopeful of the extreme left, who resembles a genetic manipulation of Jeremy Corbyn and the shark in Jaws. Mr Mélenchon has been polling higher than President Hollande. Madame Le Pen and Mélenchon loathe each other, but he is quite cynical enough to calculate that the best hope of advancing the cause of the extreme left is to destabilise the Republic by electing a candidate of the extreme right. If his voters were to support Marine Le Pen’s anti-European programme in the second round, it would greatly increase her chances.

Stranger things have happened in French presidential elections.