France divided over Brexit and own future in EU

Call for ‘French-German engine’ to deal with fallout of result that ‘seriously tests Europe’

The main difference in French political reaction to the Brexit vote was one of tone, from president Francois Hollande's "deep regret" of "a painful decision" to the exultant joy of Front National (FN) leader Marine Le Pen, who demanded a similar referendum in France.

Across the political spectrum, there was recognition that the present EU system has failed to win the loyalty of its people, that, as Mr Hollande said, "Europe is a great idea and not just a big market. And it's doubtless because we forgot that Europe lost its way."

Prime minister Manuel Valls said the result "reveals a malaise that was ignored for too long." Europe had "closed its eyes to the warnings and doubts expressed by the European people," Mr Valls said. "This is the moment to . . . refound a new Europe by listening to the people."

Mr Hollande, like his foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault and EU officials, expressed a sense of urgency that contrasted with the British desire to conclude the divorce slowly. “Great Britain will no longer be part of the EU and the procedures foreseen by the treaties must be carried out rapidly,” Mr Hollande said.  “That is the rule and that is the consequence.”


Mr Hollande tried to reassure the French that co-operation with Britain would continue “on the economic, human and cultural level”. Defence co-operation between the two countries would be “preserved”, he said.

“The British vote seriously tests Europe,” Mr Hollande continued. “Europe must show its solidity and strength by bringing the necessary answers to master the economic and financial risks of the British departure. Measures have already been taken and I have confidence in their efficacy.”

Ms Le Pen made a similar point, condemning the "catastrophisme of those who have fear as their only argument" and predicting that "the hysteria of the financial markets" would not last long. The UK is about to join "the enviable list of European states who are non-members, including the very prosperous Norway, Switzerland and Iceland," she said. There was no reason the EU could not conclude free trade agreements with the UK.

Mr Hollande promised that France would “take the initiative so that Europe concentrates on the essential: the security and defence of our continent so that we can protect our frontiers and preserve peace . . . investment for growth and employment . . . fiscal and social harmonisation”.

European record

Several commentators criticised Mr Hollande's European record. "He has said nothing on the subject of Europe," said Francois Bayrou, the head of the centrist party MoDem. "There's an absence of ideas on Europe, when there is no other future for the French."

The Franco-German former MEP Daniel Cohn-Bendit urged Mr Hollande to "Get moving Francois! Come on! With Angela [Merkel], say, 'Here is the plan that France and Germany are proposing for Europe.'"

The idea that the Franco-German "engine" could solve the crisis was widespread. Mr Hollande talked with Chancellor Angela Merkel and Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, for 20 minutes after the referendum results were announced. He will meet with Dr Merkel in Berlin on Monday, before the council meeting on Tuesday.

“France and Germany must manage to agree,” said the former foreign minister Hubert Védrine. “That’s the only right response. If they don’t have a ‘plan B’, they’ll find one.”

Standing before a new FN poster saying "Brexit, and now France!" Ms Le Pen boasted that her party alone had the "clear-sightedness" to support the "Leave" campaign, which "gives us extra legitimacy" to press for a referendum in France.

Ms Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie, the founder of the FN, issued a statement saying, “today the Brexit, tomorrow the Fraxit!”

“What no one had envsaged a few months ago is now a reality that must be acknowledged,” Ms Le Pen said. “Yes, it is possible to leave the EU. Neither the EU nor the euro are irreversible.”

Ms Le Pen predicted that “Europe will be at heart of the [May 2017 French] presidential campaign.”

More than a half dozen presidential hopefuls reacted to the British referendum, including the former president Nicolas Sarkozy, who demanded a "new treaty to show the peoples of our continent that Europe is determined to take its destiny in hand."

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe is Paris Correspondent of The Irish Times