17 April 2019

The European Parliament elections come at a pivotal moment for France’s domestic politics, society, and economy. President Emmanuel Macron’s attempts to reform an ailing economy and introduce green-friendly policies have been deeply controversial. Months of protests by the gilets jaunes across France have put his administration under challenge, though they have not completely undermined it.

But the Européennes 2019 will be more than just a referendum on Macron’s leadership. At the heart of the elections is a widening division in French politics over the institutions and future course of the EU itself. According to Politico, Macron’s pro-EU, pro-integration party La République en Marche is currently leading the polls with 22.6% of the vote, but he is closely followed by Marine Le Pen’s Eurosceptic Rassemblement National, at 21%. As one of its largest member states, France acts as an intriguing window into a wider debate about how the EU should deal with new challenges in the years ahead.


Public opinion

The Eurobarometer released in autumn 2018 suggests general support for the union amongst a majority of the French population. 59% of French people say that they are “attached to Europe,” while 62% identify as a citizen of the EU. Moreover, there is broad support for a monetary union and for free movement of people (72% and 82% respectively).

However, only 33% of the French express confidence in the governance of the EU, declining from 41% in autumn 2017. Only the Czech Republic, the UK, and Greece are less confident. Furthermore, just 18% consider that things are going in a good direction in the EU, while 63% say the opposite. This judgement is notably shared by a wide range of ages and socio-economic categories.

Both La République en Marche and Rassemblement National have latched onto this negative perception of the EU, and both have called for reforms. But in their diagnoses of the causes of the problem, and in the solutions they are proposing, they diverge dramatically.


La République en Marche and ever-closer union

The programme of La République en Marche for the European elections acknowledges that many French people now feel disconnected from the EU. It blames the “lack of coordination of European politics,” adding, “The economic strategies of member states are not complementary, and the Eurozone does not possess the capacity to respond to economic shocks.” It claims that some national leaders have sown the seeds of distrust in the EU, and responds, “We must put an end to this epidemic in taking responsibility for our national politics and in regenerating the European ideal.”

Macron’s “European ideal” lies in closer monetary and political union. Key proposals include creating a Eurozone budget for various projects, as well as establishing further common social rights to balance the unequal economic development of member states. He also proposes creating a European defence fund to finance common military equipment, as well as creating a council of European security. While Macron appears to have stepped back from his earlier call for a “true European army,” these policies in particular are deeply controversial among the Eurosceptic opposition.


Rassemblement National and souverainisme

Macron’s programme argues that “for the big challenges of our time (security, migration, trade, technology), true sovereignty happens through European action, in a renewed democratic framework. That means a Europe which concentrates on these big challenges and dares to defend its interests and values in the world.”

Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (formally Front National) asserts a very different sense of sovereignty: one based around greater power for national parliaments and a reduced political and economic role for the EU’s institutions. Known as “souverainisme,” this position is strongly related to the party’s opposition to mass immigration. In a speech in January, Le Pen accused the EU of having a “dangerous imperial vision,” and blamed its institutions for what she described as the “flood of migrants” into France and the “free circulation of terrorists.” Le Pen also called for a “European Alliance of Nations,” with more decision-making ability for member states over their borders, legislation, and budget. Significantly, however, there is no mention of a French exit from the EU – a sign that the UK’s present difficulties may have dissuaded others from pursuing a similar course.

Where Macron established a broad base of support across France in the 2017 elections, Rassemblement National has historically drawn its voters from the working class and from areas where deindustrialisation has led to poverty. Le Pen had hoped to further increase her party’s poll ratings at Macron’s expense by expressing her support for the anti-establishment gilets jaunes movement. However, this increase appears not to have materialised. The self-styled “anti-system” politics of the movement means that many of its proponents refuse to vote, or will only vote for a party explicitly led by gilets jaunes (the volatility of the movement has prevented such a party surviving for very long, although some have tried). Moreover, the infiltration of the movement by various far-left and far-right groups has weakened public support for the movement, leading to a small rise in Macron’s approval ratings. As such, in the short term, a movement set up to oppose Macron’s economic policies may paradoxically have ended up benefiting him.


The collapse of the old centre

One of the major recent themes of modern French politics has been the rapid decline of the traditional centrist parties. Both the centre-right Les Républicains and the centre-left Parti Socialiste failed to progress through to the second round of the 2017 Presidential election. Previous incarnations of these centrist parties had dominated French politics for decades, but they have failed to regain any of their previous success. Indeed, while Macron and Le Pen are collectively polling at almost 45% for the European elections, Les Républicains and Parti Socialiste are collectively polling at under 20%. The figures are testament to the desire of the French public for more radical political change at both a national and European level – a task the established centrist parties are seen as unfit to deliver.

Indeed, the traditional centrist parties now possess similar levels of support to smaller parties further from the political centre. The French Green Party, which has argued in favour of greater economic integration in order to promote green policies, is polling at 7.9%. Elsewhere, two parties at opposite ends of the political spectrum share a full-blooded French Euroscepticism. The right-wing Debout La France, currently hovering around 5% in the polls, has called for the abolition of the Schengen zone and the European Commission, as well as giving the right to member states countries to expel migrants who don’t have the right of asylum. On the other side, the left-wing La France Insoumise, led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has argued for greater power for national parliaments, the refusal of a common defence policy, and an end to the “war against migrants.” It is polling at 8.4%.

Overall, the polling shows that over a third of votes are likely to go to strong Eurosceptic parties that are outside the political centre: Rassemblement National, La France Insoumise, and Debout La France. Thus while Macron is currently projected to win the European elections, he will have to proceed with caution. Much of the support for these parties will indeed arise from domestic concerns, although these can’t always be separated easily from European ones – migration being a key example. In any case, divisions in France over the future path of the EU are very real. They are also reflected elsewhere in the EU, where the traditional political centre is shrinking and Eurosceptic parties are set to gain more seats. In this difficult political landscape, it remains to be seen how successful Macron will be with his reformist agenda.