France, Europe and ‘Frexit’: Was the French election a vote on ‘Europe’?

In a recent blog post, Caterina Froio has correctly noted that the politicisation of Europe has been one of the central factors in the French election campaign. While Europe is often a secondary issue in election campaigns, in this case it represented an important point of contention for many of the parties involved. Disagreements on the future of the EU were one of the elements that prevented a joint campaign between Mélenchon and Hamon; there were no less than five candidates arguing for renegotiation or ‘Frexit’, and pro-Europeanism has been Macron’s USP. Overall, in the first round of the election, Eurosceptic candidates received over 40% of the vote which led to a narrative that 40% of the French population voted ‘against Europe’ and, in the most extreme cases  some newspapers  claimed that the French, like the British, would get to vote on the future membership of France and the EU. ‘Frexit’, they claimed, was no longer a seemingly abstract idea but a potential political reality.

The narrative above, however, is highly misleading. First of all, it obfuscates the diversity in the positions of the various candidates. Secondly, it overestimates the extent to which the EU actually mattered.

On the first point, what was really interesting to observe in this campaign were the varieties of Euroscepticism being displayed. The safest way to open a discussion on Euroscepticim is by stating that Euroscepticism is the kind of word that we should be using in the plural. This campaign was no different: we’ve seen internationalist opposition to the EU, sovereigntist critiques, moderate critiques, and positions varying from ‘renegotiation’ to ‘renegotiation or Frexit’ to plain Frexit – and that is not even mentioning the euro, whereby the objectives have gone from leaving the euro to transforming it into a shared currency (as opposed to a single currency). The two candidates whose Euroscepticism stood out were Marine Le Pen on the far right, and Jean-Luc Melenchon on the far left.

Le Pen’s party, the Front National, has had an ambiguous relationship with the EU. Up until the early nineties, in fact, it was broadly supportive of EU integration as a safeguard against the Soviet Union and the United States. However, from the early nineties and especially since the ratification of the Maastricht treaty, it has moved solidly into the ground of opposition to the EU.  Le Pen’s main issue with the EU is one of sovereignty. Her programme proposed to return monetary, legal, territorial and economic sovereignty to France. Initially, she had also promised a referendum on the euro, although she slowly backtracked on the point during the campaign. In the presidential debate in particular, she presented  a very confused picture of how she envisaged the future of the monetary union.

Mélenchon, on his side, placed himself in the tradition of French Left-wing Euroscepticism. Left-wing Euroscepticism in France is rooted in the idea of protecting the unique French social model and typically criticises the EU’s excessive liberalism and lack of solidarity. Mélenchon, just like Le Pen, proposed to renegotiate the treaties, but his concern was very much to counter ‘German Europe’ and create a new democratic, social and green Europe. His position was centred on staunch anti-austerity, a topic which did not feature particularly high in Le Pen’s concerns.

So, if Europe is what voters cared about, they were being offered some very different options for the future of the EU. The other question to be answered, however, is one about how much of a central issue was Europe.

The vote in itself was not a vote on the EU. In fact, there is a big difference between voting for a candidate that is also anti-EU and voting against the EU. According to a Harris interactive poll published between the first and second round, the only voters who put Europe on the top-five of their priorities in the first round were Macron voters. Neither Melenchon nor Le Pen voters considered it a priority. These parties were much more associated with other issues than they are with the EU issue, while the ‘strictly anti-EU candidate’ got around 1%, not exactly a flying start!

Does this mean that if there was a vote on ‘Frexit’ (which is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future) they would vote against? No. We know how referendum campaigns tend to end up being about anything but the question being asked. But neither does it prove that they would vote to leave. Thus, while the vote in France will have some important implications for the future of Europe it should not be read as a vote of approval or disapproval of the EU. It was a vote that opposed candidates that were, among other things, opposing the EU and a candidate who, among other things, cared about a stronger EU. Now that Macron has won, we will have to wait and see if he can deliver the change he has promised for the European project. The seemingly looming threat of ‘Frexit’ may be have subsided, but the issue of Europe will remain salient on the political agenda.


Marta Lorimer is a PhD candidate at the European Institute, London School of Economics. She holds a degree in European Studies from Sciences Po Paris and the LSE. Her research interests include far right parties, European politics and ideas of ‘Europe’.

This entry was posted in brexit, Elections, European Union, Euroscepticism, France, Politics, Referendum and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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