One of the EU’s two primary member-states has become increasingly discontented with the European project. By Paul Dransele
“No to Brussels. Yes to France.”
On May 1st, France’s national workers day, the message sent by the extreme-right National Front party to voters couldn’t be clearer. Three weeks ahead of European elections which could see Marine Le Pen’s National Front win at least one-third of the 74 French MEPs seats, the extreme-right party is making wide use of its historical anti-EU refrain. In an epic, quasi-mystical depiction of National Front leader Marine Le Pen into Joan of Arc – France’s historical Maid of Orléans who expelled the British from the kingdom in the 15th Century – Marine Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie, former party leader and unsuccessful presidential candidate for years, voices a clear message: “Marine is here to liberate France from the yoke of Brussels”.
Don’t be mistaken. As nationalistic and xenophobic as the National Front may be, it is miles away from the nationalist party leaders you might sometimes see campaigning. Since her father stepped down, Marine Le Pen managed to turn the party into an extremely successful vote magnet. The truth is that the party is now France’s third political force (after the Socialists and the centre-Right UMP) and as striking as it may be, their ideas find a large positive echo in a population whose distaste for politics has only been confirmed by the recent scandals affecting both historical government parties.
The collective hangover
With only 41% of people in France in favour of the EU today, the French are losing faith in the European dream as quickly as one drinks a glass of champagne. Something obviously went wrong along the way. Born from the desire to avoid any new large-scale European conflict between the two historical enemies France and Germany, half of the European engine is getting gloomy, staring beyond the Rhine to the well-oiled and successful BMW-style German engines. The Pew Research Centre summed it up quite well. “No EU country is becoming more dispirited and disillusioned faster than France.” A collective hangover, en quelque sorte.
The fact is that the cure is usually as hard as the binge was pleasant. Having lived for years on a diet of state aid, social spending and Châteauneuf du Pape, the State now has to close the tap. This entails cutting social spending, diminishing social benefits and joining the rest of the world into that new type of sport that is foreign investment-hunting. And the French are slowly realising that as big as the cellar once was, the bottles are slowly and irremediably getting emptier. As one might say, you may continue to ask the barman to pour you a glass, but when the tap is closed the song remains the same.
Two options are therefore available. Turning to rehab and starting to limit consumption (an unlikely solution in the current French état d’esprit), or blame the barman. The rise in polls for the National Front leaves no doubt on the preferred solution.
As former Minister for small businesses Fleur Pellerin once put it, “France needs a change in attitude and stop being so down on itself”. But the addiction is largely rooted in the French mentality. The difficulty to reform a strike-prone and union-controlled labour market, the heavy tax burden imposed to finance the largely unaffordable social benefits scheme and the struggle for entrepreneurs to start businesses leads more and more young people to leave the country (27% now consider leaving the country, compared to only 13% in 2012). And it is unlikely that the hangover will be cured in the fortnight before EU election time.
So instead, the French found a scapegoat. And what better scapegoat than the EU, whose intrusive laws undermine French grandeur and control the “national destiny” of the Gallic pride (in the words of Marine Le Pen)! And this scapegoat-hunt is a symptom our political parties are far from curing. Instead, they continue to pour oil on the fire by denouncing the “harsh economic treatment” imposed by Brussels. Reality should lead us to understand that when one’s bank account is empty you need to stop spending, but reality is not a thing nostalgia-driven France wants to face.
So obviously after years of binge, cirrhosis looms and the diagnosis is terrible. Judge for yourself: with only 38% of French citizens trusting the European Parliament, and only 32% trusting both the European Commission and the European Council, support for the EU is getting thinner. The Union is now considered to be responsible for the loss of cultural identities by 15% of respondents, 45% claim never to have felt European, 22% think it only increases red tape, while 36% simply equate the EU to a waste of money.
Worst is that this collective depression continues spreading, with 56% of French citizens now pessimistic about the future of the EU and 70% opposed to any future enlargement. At a time when Russia knocks on the door in Ukraine, more support could be expected from the country of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.
Don’t kick a man when he’s down, they now say about the EU…
Youth saves private EU
Thankfully not everything is as dark as it may seem. Among this collective, hangover-led depression there are some beacons of hope. Despite 71% of French respondents claiming their children’ lives will be more difficult than theirs and only 9% judging the economic situation to be good, 43% of French citizens still enjoy the freedom the EU gives them to travel and study and 63% are in favour of the euro. There is in fact still room for EU support, but it is getting thinner as the effects of the eurozone crisis persist.
France should now rely on its inner strengths to pave the way for a positive EU-accompanied recovery. Instead of launching endless government-assisted youth job creation programmes, France should more strongly team up with the EU to create the conditions for young and innovative entrepreneurs and leaders to build the France of tomorrow. Given its position in the EU, the country should be more in line behind the Union to reconcile the French with innovation, job creation, private investment and the business sector. These are the only plausible sources of growth.
The EU must also work with France to loosen the fiscal grip which prevents entrepreneurship and to simplify French red tape by supporting the territorial administration reform put forth by the current Prime Minister. National measures may or may not be sufficient but the debate is no longer national. In a time where European youth starts leaving for more attractive shores, it is time for the EU to take matter in its own hands.
The EU needs to appeal to French youth, to those who experience Europe on a daily basis through its programmes, through their European connections and through their knowledge of what Europe really is. Beyond the Brussels technocracy, there is a desire for the French to learn and share with their European counterparts. There is a desire to work today for a better tomorrow. From green energy and environmental protection to human rights and ethical business practices, the EU needs to drive this change to create the conditions necessary for youth to thrive in tomorrow’s environment. And France, as one of the founders of the EU, needs to play its part alongside the Union.
Because at this stage, only EU action and future successes will quell the negative and irrational claims of fearful extreme parties.
Image: ‘La France’ courtesy of Doug via Flickr, released under Creative Commons.
 According to a recent study by the Pew Research Centre, available online at : http://www.pewglobal.org/database/indicator/28/country/74/
 According to a Deloitte-IFOP study from January 2014, available online at: http://www.deloitte.com/view/fr_FR/fr/mediatheque/532ced4f314e3410VgnVCM2000003356f70aRCRD.htm?id=barometre_jeunes2014_c
 Figures from the last Eurobarometer – Future of Europe report from January 2014, available online at: http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/ebs/ebs_413_en.pdf