French National Front president Marine Le Pen, right, smiles with Italy's Northern League leader Matteo Salving during the Europe of Nations and Freedom movement meeting in Milan, Italy, Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016.©Antonio Calanni/AP/Press Association Images

What are the chances of a Frexit?

There is rising frustration with the EU, but the French remain believers—so far
March 24, 2016

Ever since the results of the last European Parliament elections in 2014, when Marine Le Pen began referring to her far-right party as “the first party of France,” the political establishment has been working its way through the seven stages of grief. The morning after the elections, prominent French author Jean-Marie Rouart expressed his shock in Paris Match and his disbelief in the fact that over 4.7m French people had cast their votes in favour of the Front National: “We’re suddenly seized by the sense of irreversibility, of the irreparable, some would say...” Today, most mainstream politicians and commentators seem arrested in the Denial phase, with Anger, Bargaining, Guilt and Depression still barring their way to Acceptance and Hope.

The fact is, whether they like it or not, Le Pen’s agenda—immigration, law and order and national identity—now dominates political debate and this includes France’s position within the European Union, one of the nation’s sacred cows. Like its military and civilian nuclear policy, France’s pro-European consensus runs deep and stems directly from its experience of the Second World War. Framed under Charles de Gaulle in the aftermath of the Nazi Occupation and Philippe Pétain’s ignominious “National Revolution,” the European project served as an antidote to collective humiliation. Piloted by Jean Monnet, a pillar of Free France, it began life as a never-again stance against nationalism and has always been sold to the French as a cultural and political ideal, rather than a commercial proposition, as it has always been to the British.

"There is a resigned acceptance of the EU. Many feel a single and isolated France would not make the grade"
That is why Le Pen’s avowed policy on the EU is so deliciously contorted. At no point has she come out and said that, if elected President, she’d make the unilateral decision to take France out of the EU, or indeed the eurozone. She does however engage repeatedly in Euro-bashing because she knows most of her voters are allergic to what they perceive as a merciless technocratic machine nibbling away at their personal liberty and purchasing power. “If I don’t manage to negotiate with the EU something I wish,” she told Bloomberg TV in June 2015. “Then I’ll ask the French to leave the EU. And then you’ll be able to call me Madame Frexit.” Le Pen might use the term “Frexit” when pushed by the Anglophone press but unlike her father, Jean-Marie, she is nothing if not strategic. She knows how attached to the idea of Europe the French establishment and mainstream media are and is careful not to use the term in French.

#Frexit has gathered no traction on Twitter, except in correlation with #Brexit or #VoteLeave with which it is generally associated and it is precisely this link with the British anti-EU movement that Le Pen has started to use to her advantage. She has also spied an unprecedented opportunity to legitimise her profile by riding the coattails of an international figure like David Cameron. On 8th February she tweeted, “I shall enter into negotiations with the European Union as Great Britain did,” and in a speech in Brussels on 24th February, she hailed the British referendum as proof of “the beautiful vitality of British democracy.”

This manoeuvre is not without risk. British values are widely seen, and by Front National voters in particular, as contrary to those of France. One of the themes uniting Le Pen’s increasingly disparate supporters is a profound opposition to the kind of economic austerity expected by the EU and accepted by the majority of Britons. Her party’s official website reflects this: “These successive austerity measures always affect the same people: the working and [lower] middle classes, pensioners, civil servants and small businesses.” Unlike Cameron, Le Pen sees the EU as the potential nemesis of working people rather than a commercial opportunity.

In May last year, on the anniversary of the 2005 referendum in which the French said “Non” to the new European constitution, a poll by IFOP for Le Figaro asked the question, “If asked again would you vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’?” The result, relayed by Le Figaro as cause for alarm, revealed that 62 per cent would say “no”—an increase of seven points in 10 years. Further questions in the same poll, however, revealed the highly contradictory nature of the French attitude to the EU. For although the majority of respondents would vote “no” to ratifying the same constitution, 71 per cent were opposed to France leaving the euro, 60 per cent were in favour of a European President elected through direct suffrage, 71 per cent in favour of a European army and 62 per cent believed membership of the union was “a good thing for France.” Jérôme Fourquet, an analyst at IFOP, said of this mixed result, “There is, among French people, a resigned acceptance of Europe. Many feel that a single and isolated France would not make the grade.” It seems that the cultural programming initiated by De Gaulle and Jean Monnet in the post-war years cemented France’s view of itself as in vital need of the European project, a narrative for which Britain, after its chapter of splendid Churchillian isolation, had no need.

For the British, the European project is contractual and the approach of successive governments has been a transactional one, rather than an emotional one. For the French it was a love match from the start and although the honeymoon is clearly over this once Catholic nation won’t consider divorce.