For France, and its President, dealing with the Brexit is a high risk, high opportunity game. A main objective widely shared across the French political class is to regain a leadership which has been continuously declining over the past decade.
Resisting the nationalist tide
A major source of concern in France is that the Brexit could be a catalyser bringing a nationalist wave which could not be contained by the established elites. The leader of the Front National, Marine Le Pen, has made jubilating claims that a “Frexit” was no longer out of reach. She has promised to place a referendum on EU membership at the heart of her campaign for the presidential election next year, a pledge likely to widen the – already powerful – appeal of the far right within the French electorate. The referendum from 2005 is still, for many French people, an open wound. While a majority had voted against the European Constitutional Treaty, pro-EU elites under the Presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy – had decided to ignore the verdict coming out of the polls as the French Parliament then ratified the much similar Treaty of Lisbon. This remains as the loudest denial of democracy in the contemporary French political history.
Against this backdrop, François Hollande is thus willing to make the British exit costly enough to deter any domino effect. Leaving the EU cannot be harmless. You cannot, as the French say, have “the butter, the butter’s money and the smile of the dairywoman”. In EU terms, this means that France will resist any deal which allowing the UK to benefit from the Single Market without abiding by its rules, or to enjoy any other financial benefits while no longer contributing to the EU budget.
Meanwhile, the French political class could barely be more divided. On the radical Left, and although not yet clearly articulated, Jean-Luc Mélenchon is advocating a French strategy of civil disobedience until a left wing French government would force a radical reform away from neoliberal policies. The French Socialist Party has still not recover from the contentious campaign of 2005 with uncreative EUcritics facing uncreative EUreformers. The Conservatives, who currently have 15 candidates running for the primaries to the presidential election, all have different views of how to deal with the post-Brexit EU. Nicolas Sarkozy has recently called for a refoundation of Europe through a new Schengen and a new treaty (possibly) submitted to a referendum.
We also witness the resurgence of old anti-European and anti-British sentiments. While some see Paris profiling itself again as a significant financial place next to the City, there has been much UK bashing, claims that the French influence would benefit from the Brexit, calls to suppress the EU Commission, and even demands that the English language should no longer be an official language of the EU!
Yet, what Europe needs is not old style French chauvinism, but decisive and responsible leadership.
Leadership vs standstill
With Britain out, and panic shaking the continent, France clearly has a responsibility to endorse constructive leadership. The disintegration of the EU can not only result from a contagion of the Brexit to other countries and a return to the nations, but also from a deadly standstill. In this regard, the talks at the meeting of the European Council in Brussels on 27 and 28 June have not been reassuring.
Yet again, the EU is under the threat of paralysis, torn apart between those who want to relaunch integration with new projects able to convince European citizens that further integration is desirable, and those who see the Brexit as a sign that, on the contrary, people want less Europe and that the EU should mute towards minimal forms of classical inter-state cooperation.
Under these circumstances, will France be able to play a decisive role for salvaging EU integration? French elites strongly aspire to rebalance the French position vis-à-vis German hegemony, thus restoring the historic power and prestige lost with poor economic performance and erratic politics.
But the task is difficult. Over the past couple of weeks, we have witnessed calls for the six founding states to stick together in the face of the Brexit. Yet, while France and Italy are ready to embrace more integration of the Eurozone (possibly with news mechanisms of risk sharing and fiscal and social integration), the Netherlands and even Germany are much more reluctant. As for Belgium, it is torn apart with a federal government held a coalition of rather pro-integration Liberals and “Eurorealist” Flemish nationalists.
Even the French and the Germans do not seem to agree on much so far. Unlike the French, the Germans are much less willing to adopt a hard line towards Britain. Regarding a further integration of the Eurozone, Germany is reluctant both due to both utilitarian calculations that it would have more to lose with further integration, and democratic concerns about the unsustainability of the current governance structures. With the respective key election taking place next year in both countries, we are clearly threatened by a detrimental political standstill.
There have been rumours that a small group of politicians and EU high officials had been preparing a French-German plan for strengthening cooperation in the realm of security, including border control and the fight against terrorism. While such a plan could potentially include all 27 EU Member States, it remains to be seen whether it can be convincing enough to bring about a new political impetus for the EU. Also, it would require strong political skills for it not to be framed in terms of building a fortress Europe to immunise its scared citizens from the harsh realities hitting around Europe in an egoistic manner, and feeding rather than tackling the amalgam between refugees, asylum seekers, economic migrants, Muslims, and terrorists.
Whether it comes from a voluntarist France, from a novel French-German relationship, or from new clusters across the continent, the EU is in desperate need of new leadership. Everything that resembles the status quo is just not an option. It can only be advocated by those who desire the end of the European Union. Meanwhile, two things are certain. If the EU does not profoundly reform itself and find a way out through convincing projects, it will not survive. If there was ever to be a referendum in the foreseeable future in France, it is very likely to be just as contentious, ugly, and unpredictable as in Britain.