France: the tale of disenchantment, ambiguity and ambition on the EU

23 Jun 2016 - 12:55
Source: Philip Ou -Flickr

The French are currently among the most critical of the EU

France is ambiguous about the EU. Its preferences constantly vary between the intergovernmental and the community method. Part of the explanation for this wavering is that France has been having troubles to adapt its policy framework to a changing and widening EU. Yet, France remains committed to a political and ambitious European project.

France has a certain idea of Europe
The European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said in a recent interview that “France ha[d] a certain idea of Europe”. This quote captures well how France sees the EU. Ever since the enlargement from 2004 onwards and the “no” in the 2005 referendum on the constitutional treaty, France has proved less forward-thinking on the future of the EU, while retaining an active willingness to see it prosper.

However, the French people have grown increasingly disenchanted with the EU. As a recent Pew poll showed, the French are among the most critical of the EU in the member states surveyed. Just 38 percent have a favourable view of the EU. This critical tone is neither new nor simply contextual. The French certainly feel that the EU is mishandling the economic and refugee crises, but there has been a shift in the French discourse. The youth and the elite are less idealistic about the EU. In France, the debate takes place between supporters of different EUs. All agree on the idea that today’s EU is doomed to muddle through and to disappoint, but they disagree on which aspects to reform, strengthen or reduce.

National ideological divisions in EU policies
On the right-side, the Schengen area has become the target of numerous attacks. Nicolas Sarkozy, when he was still president, was already throwing out the idea of a “Schengen 2”. The specifics of this reform have long remained unclear, but the refugee crisis has provided a framework for clarification. In a nutshell, there should be stricter rules to enter a better protected Schengen zone.

On the left side, the most pressing demands have always concerned “social Europe”. During the 2005 referendum campaign, the “Bolkenstein directive” (known outside France as the Services directive) epitomised everything left-leaning movements resented about a neo-liberal, corporate-first EU. This feeling may have dampened, although it garnered new momentum with the primacy of austerity measures in recent years.

Those two major trends should be interpreted as the application of national ideological divisions to EU issues. It is customary for right-wing politicians to want stricter rules on immigration and for left-wing ones to favour a more generous welfare system. On most EU issues, however, France is more united. On the future of the Eurozone, French people would be inclined to support some form of integration.

A willingness to think about the future of the EU: further integration within the Eurozone
The French government is hinting in the same direction. Several voices within and outside government have been supporting the idea of further integration within the Eurozone. François Hollande announced last year that France would make proposals for the future of the Eurozone. They may likely contain a Eurozone government, a Parliament and a budget. Others have also mentioned a Eurozone Finance Minister whose authority would cover investment policies and labour market reforms. It is unclear when this project will see the light of day considering the presidential and parliamentary elections in France next year and whether it will be an exclusively French contribution, as there seems to be a preference for a Franco-German joint initiative.

It is needless to say that this kind of ambition cannot happen overnight. The British question has precipitated the debate in France, but it remains confined in small and scattered circles. The “Brexit” issue could have fostered an intense debate on the future of the EU, but there have been only a few sustained efforts to do so. The social context certainly does not help; neither does the looming presidential elections. Yet, France could have the opportunity to take the initiative in Europe. It is undeniable that its credibility is damaged by its lack of structural reforms, yet France is among the few member states willing to invest in thinking about the future of the EU. The content and the partners with whom France wants to discuss matter immensely, as it would be too short-sighted to focus all eyes on Germany.

A ‘Europe puissance’ and the lack of European partners
Traditionally, France has also been a strong supporter of a “Europe puissance” (power Europe), which should allow the EU to be influential in the world and to be able to act diplomatically and militarily if there is a need to do so. However, Paris has grown frustrated in the light of indifference or sometimes resistance from its European partners. It remains committed to a European “strategic autonomy”, but this rhetoric appears less central than it was in the past. The priority is now given to exploit what the Lisbon treaty offers rather than to push for bold initiatives, which may take years to materialise.

In sum, France may be ready to take the initiative again in an EU on which it has little grip, but it does not know where to start, how big to think and who will support it – starting with French citizens.


Vivien Pertusot is Head of the Brussels office for the French institute of International Relations.