Frexit Definitely Off the Menu in Presidential Race
Unlike 2017, the upcoming presidential election won’t be about whether France should remain in the EU. But it might turn into a debate about what France should do within it.
For many French people, a week-long cycle of never-ending family lunches has finally ended. In an attempt to avoid ennui and circumvent contentious issues, they had ample time to debate the upcoming presidential elections.
The task was made easy, as in a crowded field candidates have been trying hard to get some airtime. Center-right hopeful Valérie Pécresse ensured that she was the talk of the nation’s Christmas dinners by stating that “Eating foie de gras is being French.” The sovereigntists got their chance to shine on New Year’s Eve, when the government flew the EU flag under the Arc de Triomphe to mark the start of France’s presidency of Council of the EU. For far-right Marine Le Pen flying the EU flag over the tomb of the unknown soldier was an “attack on French identity,” for nativist Éric Zemmour it was an “outrage,” and hard-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon saw it as a “macronist tantrum.”
Commentators of course are already lamenting that the presidential campaign is desending into a contest to rail against strawmen (not even the Greens want to ban foie de gras that is eaten by 75 percent of the French at Christmas) and to engage in cheap identity politics. But a country’s politicians elevating dietary and protocollary matters to existential questions can also be seen as a positive. To understand this, let’s roll back five years.
Who Said Frexit?
In 2017, the country did not have time for a French version of the Currywurst debates, as it was instead contemplating Frexit and banging on about Germany.
Le Pen said that 70 percent of her program could not be implemented without France leaving the EU. Anti-German rhetoric was also a big part of her campaign. Le Pen’s punchiest line in the TV debate with Emmanuel Macron before the second run-off round was “France will be governed by a woman: either me or Madame Merkel.”
Hard left Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who won a stunning 19.6 percent in 2017, attacked the “neoliberal EU” and promised to exit the parts of the EU he did not like. Mélenchon even wrote a book about how Germany used the EU to dominate the rest of the continent, with the unambiguous title “Bismarck’s Herring: The German Poison.”
In this context, center-right candidate François Fillon equally curried favor with the EU skeptics. Fillon let it be known that that he voted “No” in the 2005 EU constitutional referendum and heavily criticized German Chancellor Angela Merkel for her refugee, energy, and Russia policy.
Macron instead proclaimed enthusiastically “We love Europe!” and praised Merkel. His bet worked. Sure, the French have an ambiguous relationship with the EU. But 64 percent of the French live in their own homes usually bought with 25-year mortgages denominated in euros. Good luck convincing them to ditch the common currency. Macron beat Le Pen with a 33 percent margin.
EU in your Face
France’s presidential candidates discussing the hanging of EU flags instead of EU membership reveals how Macron’s 2017 victory has settled the question of France’s future in Europe at least for a generation.
Le Pen and Zemmour know they are lost if the election becomes a rerun of 2017. Neither of them wants to leave the EU anymore and both are trying to not make the issue the heart of their campaign, focusing instead on migration and crime. So far, their only substantive EU policy proposal has been to enshrine that the French constitution prevails over EU law in migration questions. Such bids keep their EU skeptic core voter base happy, but are too legalistic to retain media attention for long and engage the average French voter. (Even the Swiss voted down a similar proposition by 66 percent in 2016.)
The fact that Europe has played a minor role so far in the presidential campaign is a problem for Macron. He needs it to be a theme to mobilize his voter base. Luckily for him, the EU presidency allows him to provoke his sovereigntist rivals into talking about the EU and thereby remind voters about their Frexit past over the coming months.
From Rennes to Nîmes, France’s cities are lighting up their monuments in blue. From Brest to Montpellier, the government is organizing EU ministerial councils and expert meetings across the country. From Angers to Strasbourg, seminars and public debates on the EU are programmed. Macron wants to make it impossible for the French not to talk about the EU.
Still, the strategy is not without risks. In Valéry Pécresse Macron faces an adversary who has a more differentiated stance on the EU than Le Pen.
Polling at 17 percent, her best chance to close the gap to Macron (24 percent) is to win back traditional center-right voters who have switched from the Republicans to Zemmour or Macron. While Pécresse appeals to Zemmour voters by moving to the hard right on migration, she also tries to dispute Macron’s monopoly on pro-European voters.
In Le Monde (the newspaper of centrists), Pécresse celebrated Europe, writing: “27 nations living together in peace, 27 peoples free to move, 27 youths free to meet and love each other. One can never state enough how Europe is an historical exception that deserves to be protected.”
She calls for a “power Europe” that can protect its borders, regulate Google, introduce a carbon border tax, and advance defense cooperation. “Without Europe, we are no longer able to influence the strategic choices of the world and we would at best be irrelevant and at worst dominated.”
But Pécresse is not just a copy-cat trying to rob Macron of one of his unique selling propositions. On the one hand, she is a classic Gaullist European in the vein of former Preisdent Jacques Chirac, rejecting European federalism. This is what translates when she demands that the EU and French flag fly side-by-side at the Arc de Triomphe. But she is more complex than that. She doesn’t just bet on intergovernmental cooperation but has always been in favor of strengthening the European Parliament. As a fiscal hawk, she views Eurozone fiscal integration skeptically. Tough on rule of law issues, she has long advocated excluding Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán from the center-right European People’s Party. On Europe, Pécresse is a mix of de Gaulle and German Finance Minister Christian Lindner.
The entry of 54-year-old Pécresse into the election race thus opens the door to a more differentiated debate on European policy in the campaign than the Manichean choice of 2017. That France is moving from “if” to “how” to do Europe poses a challenge for Macron’s reelection bid. But it is also probably one of his biggest achievements.
Joseph de Weck is INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY’s Paris columnist and author of Emmanuel Macron. The revolutionary president.