France & the EU at the crossroads
This time, French presidential elections take place in an utmost critical period. Less than a year after the British referendum and six months after Trump’s election as the 45th president of the USA, it seems that the western world undergoes a major shift. What the Brexit shows us is that European integration is reversible. The decision of the UK questions more than ever the attractiveness of the EU. Much is therefore at stake for the EU with the upcoming French election.
The looming threat of an EU blow-up
There is a looming threat of an EU blow-up, as eurosceptic candidates score high in the polls. Front National candidate Marine Le Pen has been leading the polls for months and should qualify for the second round. She seems to stabilize, two weeks ahead of the election, at 24% of voters’ intentions. Meanwhile independent leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, with his movement La France Insoumise, has been benefiting from a strong last minute momentum. He surpassed the candidate of Les Républicains (center right) François Fillon, with 18% against 17%. Both Mélenchon and Le Pen want to change the EU: Mélenchon mainly wants to end austerity, for example by abolishing modifying the Stability and Growth Pact, and Marine Le Pen is for an EU of “independent nations”, an idea that remains rather vague. Both of them want to organize a referendum on France’s membership in the EU. But they are not the sole proponents of a Frexit. Small candidates such as the independents’ François Asselineau (1% of voters’ intentions), Jacques Cheminade (less than 1%), and Nicolas Dupont-Aigan (3,5%), from the party Debout la France, propose to leave the EU if treaties cannot be re-negotiated. Strong anti-euro positions often go hand in hand with anti-EU feelings, as the euro represents a huge sovereignty transfer from the national to the European level. Adding up voting intentions, this means that about 47% of French voters would choose an anti-EU and anti-euro candidate.
An unprecedented election campaign
Voting behaviour is all the more uncertain as this year’s campaigns are extremely unusual. This election takes place after two disappointing political terms, from the center-right with Sarkozy, and from the center-left with Hollande. For the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic, the incumbent President is not running for reelection. Hollande does not even have a candidate to champion his five-year term as former Prime Minister Manuel Valls was already eliminated in the primaries. Instead the primaries on the right and the left resulted in the endorsement of outsiders (François Fillon and Benoit Hamon respectively).
Against the background of François Fillon’s moral scandals – the candidate of the right has been put under investigation for bogus employment of his wife and daughters – public distrust in politicians reaches new heights. One third of French voters feels disgusted (20%) or indifferent (10%) towards politics, according to public opinion research company Ipsos. About the same proportion of French declare that they used to be interested in politics, but that it is over now. This mainly concerns young people and low qualified workers, but not exclusively.
The endorsement of Benoit Hamon, who publicly criticized the socialist government during the present term, puts the socialist party in dire straits and further highlights the deep political divide between liberal and leftist socialists. Benoit Hamon won the Greens’ support but did not succeed in forming an alliance with Mélenchon, despite their ideological proximity. This situation is dramatic for French progressives whose votes will be distributed between two candidates. Adding up expected votes for Hamon and Mélenchon (respectively 9% and 18%), a single progressive candidate would have reached 27% and led the race.
Lastly, another factor adding to the unprecedented nature of this year’s election campaign, is the fact that former Minister for Economic Affairs Emmanuel Macron runs as an independent. He has been gaining support on the right, as Fillon lost a lot of legitimacy, mired in his ethical and financial scandal, and on the left, as many officials of the Socialist Party consider Hamon’s programme as too idealist and unfeasible. He now is the second man of the election, with polls estimating 24% of votes for him. In case of a second round with Le Pen and Macron, abstention could be higher than expected, as Macron is paradoxically very unpopular among some voters to the left due to his liberal ideas and to the right, where he is perceived as “too ambitious”, “empty” and considered to be an “arriviste”. Many voters do not trust Macron, who is viewed as a usurper, with no political convictions but the thirst for power. However, polls show that he would win against Le Pen with about 60% of votes.
According to the polls, and at the time of writing, there seem to be four major candidates that score around 20% of voters’ intention, and reflect deep cleavages in public opinion. Macron is liberal in both economic and social issues, Mélenchon is a societal progressive but anti-liberal in economic matters, while Fillon supports an open economy and societal conservatism, and Marine Le Pen proposes economic protectionism and societal conservatism. The candidates’ positions toward the EU can therefore not be understood using the traditional left-right political fault lines, but only through their economic standpoint.
An anti-EU feeling stemming from social and democratic frustrations
Looking at the programmes – be they pro- or anti-EU, liberal or protectionist on economic issues – there is strong criticism of the EU’s functioning. What is striking is that the criticized issues identified are quite similar across the candidates. Most of them point to the EU’s lack of democracy, and many are frustrated with the fact that the EU did not act as an efficient shield against globalization’s detrimental effects, with the exception of Fillon, whose programme focuses only sporadically on the EU and is most of all very liberal.
The lack of economic policy leverage at the national level is the main argument of the Frexit proponents. The liberal orientation of the EU treaties since Maastricht is very much criticized. This is all the more true for Eurozone countries, which gave up monetary sovereignty and whose budgetary policy is bound by the Maastricht criteria. Frexit’s proponents generally condemn the euro because it creates competitiveness gaps between European economies. Indeed, the Eurozone is still not an optimal currency union according to Mundell’s criteria, with a low labour mobility, the high differences among national economic structures and the lack of a European fiscal policy. In this regard, it makes perfect sense to strengthen the Eurozone governance, or to leave it. Choosing the second option, Le Pen wants to go back to the Franc, while Mélenchon intends to transform the euro in a common rather than a single currency, which means the euro would coexist with national currencies in order to allow for devaluations. Anti-EU candidates often want to grant the Banque de France the right to directly finance the French economy, in order to foster activity, protect public services and support long term strategic investments. Therefore, much of the anti-EU conviction seems to stem from the (too) liberal dimension of the EU. The EU must become more social or allow for more social policies in its Member States to recover legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens. It is interesting to note that Mélenchon supported the Maastricht treaty back in 1992, considering that it was a “political counterweight to free movement of capital and goods”, and the beginning of an “EU of the citizens”. Many anti-EU candidates and voters are not per se against the idea of cooperating with our neighbors but turn away from the EU for social and democratic reasons.
Hamon and Macron, on the other hand, are aware of the EU’s deficiencies pointed out by the anti-EU candidates, and aim at reforming the Union (to a greater or lesser extent) to answer these legitimate concerns. They both support the creation of a governance system for the Eurozone, which would allow for a proper budget and democratic control. They both support fiscal and social convergence among EU member states, to fight dumping within the EU. Hamon goes even further by supporting debt mutualization and a European-wide investment plan for the energy transition, financed by a European budget potentially funded the BCE through money creation, which would represent a real break from current EU functioning. In contrast Macron proposes the creation of a mechanism to control foreign investments in Europe to protect strategic sectors.
However, among some of the current EU’s opponents, such as Mélenchon, a real desire for Europe exists. Many proposals mirror debates that have been held for years. It is critical to listen to the criticism and frustrations expressed during this electoral campaign when shaping the EU’s future – assuming that we get that chance. Meanwhile, the campaign is a neck-and-neck race. In the polls, the four main candidates are currently within the error margin. It looks like Macron’s victory would the best case scenario from an EU perspective, because Fillon does not seem to be willing to address the social and democratic deficiencies of the EU’s current functioning, while Hamon’s programme may be too radical to implement with our European partners (Germany among others), despite several interesting proposals. Whatever the result will be, one should bear in mind that anti-EU candidates’ programmes point to very important questions about what the EU should deliver according to citizens’ expectations.