French move on from EU founders to Eurosceptics

Misunderstanding about nature of Europe at heart of French disaffection

A poll published this month showed French support for EU membership has dropped 16 percentage points in a decade, from 67 per cent in 2004 to 51 per cent at present. Photograph: Pascal Rossignol/Reuters

A poll published this month showed French support for EU membership has dropped 16 percentage points in a decade, from 67 per cent in 2004 to 51 per cent at present. Photograph: Pascal Rossignol/Reuters

Sat, May 17, 2014, 01:00

Disillusionment with Europe has grown across the EU but the phenomenon is particularly marked in France, which prides itself on being the cradle of the fathers of Europe.

A CSA/BFMTV poll published this month showed French support for membership of the EU has dropped 16 percentage points in a decade, from 67 per cent in 2004 to 51 per cent at present. Only 2 per cent of respondents said they were “enthusiastic” about the future of the EU, while 38 per cent said EU membership was “a bad thing”.

Polls indicate the europhobic National Front and Front de Gauche may win nearly a third of the French vote in European parliamentary elections on May 25th.


Ambivalent attitude
Perhaps the French were never head over heels in love with Europe. “From the beginning, the French had an ambivalent attitude,” says Thierry Chopin, director of studies at the Robert Schuman Foundation. “France has been both an an engine of European integration and a brake on it.”

The May 9th, 1950, declaration establishing the European Coal and Steel Community – celebrated as the birthday of Europe – was made by the French foreign minister Robert Schuman, based on the vision of Frenchman Jean Monnet. French leaders were at the origin of the Single European Act (1987), Maastricht Treaty (1992) and failed European constitution.

France has also given Europe some of its greatest setbacks, including the abandonment of the European Defence Community (1954) and the “empty chair crisis” created by Charles de Gaulle over agricultural policy (1965).

The rejection of the constitutional treaty by 55 per cent of French voters in 2005 dramatically slowed integration, prefiguring the Dutch No and Ireland’s initial rejection of the Lisbon Treaty. The failed constitution and the fraught passage of the successor Lisbon Treaty ensured that EU leaders are unlikely to reopen the Pandora’s box of treaty ratification.


Transfers of sovereignty
The Maastricht Treaty marked the first big drop in French support for the EU, because it raised the issue of transfers of sovereignty for the first time, says Bruno Cautrès, who teaches the sociology of European integration at Sciences Po. Until Maastricht, Europe was the subject of “tolerant indifference”, Cautrès says.

A bigger turning point came in 2005. The EU gave Denmark and Ireland opt-outs and clarifications in exchange for revisiting their treaty rejections. That wasn’t possible in the face of the myriad French objections to the constitution.

President Nicolas Sarkozy circumvented popular opinion by having parliament ratify the Lisbon Treaty. Numerous French people have told me they turned against Europe when the French government “trampled on universal suffrage” by disregarding the 2005 vote.

“No one in France addressed the failure of the constitutional treaty,” says pro-European MEP Sylvie Goulard. “They shoved it in the fridge and held a foot on the door. It was very unhealthy; like a family secret. They tried to repress it psychologically. But when you repress things they always come back to the surface.”

“The economic crisis of 2007 accentuated the feeling that Europe not only no longer makes people dream but that Europe may be the heart of the problem,” says Cautrès. The council and commission accelerated economic integration, almost surreptitiously. German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble has said the steps taken to save the euro were at the very limit of what the treaties allowed.

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