One of the more notable aspects of the French Presidential elections – which have their first round of voting this weekend – has been the extent to which all the candidates have been willing to bash the EU and European integration more generally. As the very helpful manifesto comparison tool from Le Monde shows all too clearly, euroscepticism has been rife.
Of the ten candidates, three want to leave the EU, one wants to repeal Lisbon, three (including the two front-runners) want to renegotiate big chunks of the acquis and only three want to see more European integration (including a couple of old-school federalists). For a country that has been in the driving seat of the EU since the 1940s, this is not a happy picture.
Of course, there are a number of big caveats here. Firstly, the nature of the electoral system means that candidates have to mobilise their base, only to then tack to the centre if they get through to the second round. Likewise, unlike British manifestos, French candidates’ statements do not carry any strong sense of obligation or commitment in subsequent legislative programmes.
Most importantly, we need to remember that France has always been less communautaire than we like to think. De Gaulle is emblematic of this notion of using the EU to further French objectives: CAP reform, GATT/WTO negotiations, the neo-liberal turn – all have been opposed by French governments of various political hues. To use the phrase of one British official with whom I talked not so long ago, the French worked out a long time how to sound European while being even more obstructive than the UK.
Nevertheless, it is still remarkable how much the political debate in France has turned against the historic discourse of the Republic’s future laying in European integration. Even if Sarkozy and Hollande (assuming they are the two who go through to the second round) do move to the centre, both will want to capture the substantial numbers of voters who feel challenged by globalisation and internationalisation, into which ‘Europe’ has argueably been rolled. Coupled to the lack of desire by any major candidate (except perhaps Bayrou) to discuss the need for economic modernisation, it looks like the EU is going to have yet another awkward partner for the next five years.