9 May 2016

France and Brexit: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly


The biggest boost for the UK Remain Campaign could yet come from the unlikeliest source. After eight years of misery and slump, the Eurozone is rising fitfully from the ashes, with a strong euro depressing sterling and thereby bringing cheer to British exporters.

For the moment, it is a bit like our distant ancestors crawling out of the primordial soup. The sunlit uplands are still a long way off. But as spring gives way to summer, change is in the air. Europe, beset by its own concerns, unwilling to be distracted by events on its western periphery, may not go gently into that good night of talks in Brussels aimed at giving the the British the settlement they would like. Instead, it may echo Barack Obama by pointing out that in the event of Brexit they must take a number and go to the back of the queue.

In this event, expect to see the hand of France. The current occupant of the Elysée, locked in an ongoing battle for his political life, is no anglophile. It is not so much that Francois Hollande hates, or fears, the British, he simply doesn’t understand what they’re on about. Where De Gaulle had a certain idea of his neighbours across the Channel, believing them to be outward-looking, commercially obsessed, with “very marked and very original habits and traditions,” his rather limp Socialist successor simply stares with incomprehension every time David Cameron opens his mouth.

But if Britain votes to leave the EU on June 23, it will be to Hollande that all eyes will turn. More even than Angela Merkel and Jean-Claude Juncker, the French leader will be expected to articulate Europe’s response. What he says, speaking as the leader of one of the EU’s founder states, will set the tone for everything that follows.

Conversely, of course, should he remain President and the UK votes to remain, Hollande will have to confront the new reality of a Europe that has turned against ever-closer union and has begun to look towards a meaningful restoration of national sovereignty. For it is not just Britain that has had enough of Brussels-based dirigisme. Germany, the Netherlands, the former East Bloc, even Juncker himself as President of the Commission, have all indicated that a revival of the powers of the member states is moving up the agenda.

Hollande, in this event, would be the odd one out. You can’t help feeling that, in the build-up to next year’s presidential election, he would almost prefer Brexit. Get the Brits out, then reinforce the old ideas of European Union before they fall apart. The President’s rhetoric in recent years has been aimed at more Europe, not less, and it is hard to see how he could change his approach this late in the day.

Fortunately for the entente cordiale, Hollande is not the only leader to whom the Socialists might turn. Emmanuel Macron, the 38-year-old economics minister, has known for years that the British model, though infuriating, gets results. A fluent English-speaker (witness his recent performance on the Andrew Marr Show), he has visited London several times as minister, addressing French residents of the UK both to learn from their experience and to assure them that help is on the way at home. Last month, Macron, describing himself as neither from the Left nor the Right, launched his own party within a party, En Marche! (Forward!), which, while in no sense anti-EU, nevertheless predicates French economic revival on the nation getting its own house in order, with reform of the labour laws at the top of his list.

Macron believes in European integration. He believes in the euro. But he also believes in change and in the suitability of Britain – which he told Marr was a “great” country –  to be at the forefront of a drive to transform the EU. Balance, as he sees it, is being established at last between those (led by Britain) who want a single market with bells on and those (mainly France and Germany) who wish to make a success of economic and monetary union. This being so, he reckons, Britain would be choosing precisely the wrong moment in which to leave.

Manuel Valls, though constitutionally delphic, holding his loyalty card as close to his chest as possible, inclines more to the Macron position than that of Hollande, which is strong in rhetoric, weak in practice. If Macron is Blair, so too is Valls, which adds to the confusion. The Spanish-born Socialist, married to an Italian Swiss, is a firm believer in international cooperation and, like the economics minister, has warned of isolation and “consequences” should Britain choose to go it alone.

“It is for Britain to remember,” he said in February, “that it is a member state of the EU. It does not dictate the conditions of membership; it works in partnership and can only go forward with the others.”

On the conservative right, former President Nicolas Sarkozy spends much of his time these days with his lawyers fighting off corruption charges linking him to the Libyan dictator Muammar Gadaffi. But he also finds himself beset by rivals whom he thought, mistakenly, he had had seen off years ago. It is not impossible that France’s cheeky chap will claw his way back to the top of the Republican heap, overcoming such formidable opponents as Alain Juppé and François Fillon, former prime ministers with personal axes to grind. But like Shakespeare’s Henry V, he will have to persuade the faithful that the man they once knew – the roisterer, “his hours fill’d up with riots, banquets, sports” – has been replaced by a committed scholar “with true title to the seat and throne of France”.

At least we know his views on Brexit. Speaking earlier this month during a visit to India, he said that it would be a “catastrophe” for Britain, including the City of London, if it left the EU. “How can it hope to play a role in the finances of the European Union and at the same time vote to leave?” he wanted to know.

Britain outside the EU would be dominated by America. Not only that, but it wouldn’t be able to rely on Commonwealth Preference to replace its losses in Europe. France and India, he went on, had an existing free-trade agreement so effective that the “Made in India” campaign could in future be rebranded as “Made with India,” based on the ever closer ties between Paris and New Delhi.

He didn’t mention the €33.5bn contract since announced under which France will build a new generation of submarines for the Australian navy – a contract for which BAE Systems did not even bid. But there is no doubt that Sarkozy would see this, too, as a sign of things to come.

Neither Fillon nor Juppé has said much on Brexit since the referendum campaign began. Like their counterparts on the Left, they are more concerned just now with the refugee influx that threatens France and the manifest disquiet caused by the Government’s half-hearted attempts to reform the country’s antiquated labour laws. Fillon observed last month that Britain’s departure could break the dream of a federal Europe and that the necessary response would be to “reconstruct a realistic and effective European architecture” – a statement that could mean anything or nothing. Juppé, the current mayor of Bordeaux, is on record as supporting a reduction in EU legislation, including unnecessary interventions on common standards, as well as enhanced powers for national parliaments. He is also in favour of reforms concerning the payment of state benefits to foreign workers. Is he a man with whom Cameron could do business? Possibly. But never underestimate the pomposity and prickliness that comes with the Presidency.

On the Far Right, the position of the Front National on Brexit is clear and unequivocal. Marine Le Pen and her followers would greet it as a victory for France, hastening the demise of the hated European Project. Like Ukip, the FN is opposed to Europe for many reasons, but to the mass of its supporters it is the high rate of unemployment (linked to the euro) plus Muslim migration and a fear of Islamist terrorism that are at the centre of their concerns. Le Pen likes to present herself as both rational and moderate in her demands. She has, for example, worked hard to dissociate the party from its anti-semitic past. What she wants, with Joan of Arc as her overt spiritual guide, is a homogenous France that rejects globalisation and pursues its own destiny. The irony is that while Saint Joan led her fifteenth century liberation struggle against the invading English, Le Pen now invokes the flag of Saint George in pursuit of hers.

France today is caught between the need to break its chains and its reluctance to let go of some of its most cherished traditions, including the leadership of Europe. In this context, Brexit is as unwelcome to the political Establishment as a diagnosis of cancer. But as the nation’s economy, and that of the Eurozone generally, starts to sit up and take soup (in convalescence, as Le Monde put it last week), that same Establishment is expected to find its voice. France may secretly envy the democratic choice Britain has given its people, but it also lives in fear of the consequences.

Walter Ellis is a writer based in France.