January 4, 2016
2016 will be an intense year in Brussels, with a number of initiatives launched by the Juncker Commission embodied in legislative proposals.
One of the EU founding members however is under the influence of a different agenda: in less than 18 months, presidential and general elections will be held in France, and the results of the regional elections of last December show the growing success of the Front National (FN) among the French citizens. Could the Eurosceptic FN have a decisive influence on the EU agenda of the coming years, although not formally in power?
What’s happened: FN stumbling on the second round of the regional elections
In December 2015, France lived one of the defining moments of its contemporary political history. In the first round of the regional elections, under the helm of Marine le Pen, the Front National (FN) had attracted more voters than the two main ruling parties, Parti Socialiste (PS – centre left) and Les Republicains (LR – centre right). The results of the second round confirmed this trend, with more ballots cast for the Front National than ever before. No region was however conquered by FN; PS and LR, and their respective allies, will retain power in the majority of the regions.
In 2017, when the next elections come, the “all-against-Le-Pen” line might be outdated.
A French well-known political saying states that electors chose in the first round, but eliminate in the second round. To ensure elimination of FN, PS has kept its “Republican barrier” strategy, i.e. withdrawing its lists before the second round when the FN is likely to stay in front, and supporting the candidates of the centre-right. This was rejected by former President and now LR leader Nicolas Sarkozy, who has been advocating for a “ni-ni” (“neither-nor”) strategy since 2011.
On the one hand, these combined strategies have proven successful in keeping FN out of power. On the other hand, the FN seems to paradoxically benefit from being cast aside, stressing the FN narrative of being victimized by establishment, deeming PS and LR the two sides of the same coin, and presenting itself as the sole alternative. With an ever-growing number of votes going to FN, the “all-against-Le-Pen” line might be outdated when the presidential and general elections come in 2017.
Self-fulfilling prophecy: declining French influence in the EU
One indirect consequence of the rise of FN may well be a self-fulfilling prophecy: declining French influence in the EU. In the run-up to the 2017 elections, the French government will likely try to avoid antagonising more potential FN voters. Recent polls have shown that although President Hollande is seen as a powerful leader at international level by French voters (and has the COP21 success to show for it), this does not influence their electoral choice for 2017 – namely: …not Hollande. Being a champion in Brussels will not square the circle –the Commission’ ambitious program for 2016 may lack a strong support from France.
French support and implementation of EU projects might be reduced if actions in Brussels become stigmas in Paris.
First thorny issue: the Stability and Growth Pact. The path towards structural reforms is taken reluctantly, as they are unpopular among working-class voters who already massively went to FN. Similarly, attaining the target of 3% of budget deficit by 2017 might lead to cuts in public services and health-care expenses. Marine le Pen then would only have to play her favorite tune: every reform is a “diktat imposed by Brussels”. French credibility to its European counterparts is however decreasing each time it fails to respect promises taken by all 28 Member States.
Moreover, finding a consensus on a much needed European solution for the refugee crisis might prove more difficult without a strong French voice. France is indeed part of the “coalition of the willing” of nine EU member States moving faster on a sharing mechanism. More European integration on the matter is however opposed by FN supporters, ranking first in the sadly symbolic Calais region.
Similarly, France would be instrumental for a new impetus on European counter-terrorist intelligence cooperation. Drawing a dangerous parallel between the two questions high on the 2016 EU agenda, FN has called for the end of the Schengen agreements throughout the aftermaths of the Paris terrorist attacks. Should the French government be tempted to listen too much to rising anti-Schengen voices, 2016 could see one of the pillars of the EU single market, free movement of people, falter.
Finally, French support and implementation of EU projects launched by the Juncker Commission, such as the Capital Markets Union, the Digital Single Market or the Energy Union, might be reduced if actions in Brussels become stigmas in Paris. ‘Why does France do so much for Europeans when it does so little for its own people?’ would say Eurosceptic FN. Already weakened by timid growth and ever increasing unemployment rates, the French government is slowly losing its ability to be one of Europe’s driving forces in the coming year and a half.
Euroscepticism, first item in the 2016 EU agenda?
2016 will be a year for EU soul-searching, with referendums in the Netherlands and in the UK directly or indirectly linked to citizens’ sentiment towards the EU. PS & LR has not yet licked their wounds since the 2005 referendum on the Constitutional Treaty, when internal divisions between more liberal, federalist voices, and those attached to national sovereignty, were out in the open.
Increased support for FN may be partially explained of the unclear PS and LR position on EU. Left-wing voters, especially from the working class, are seemingly attracted by the FN stance that EU integration has caused more social harm than economic good. On the other side of the political spectrum, emphasis put on the erosion of national sovereignty within the Union is appealing to right-wing voters. Flanking its two main opponents from left and right, FN proposes to re-open the referendum Pandora Box, a fight that PS and LR are reluctant to pick up, as their 2005 coalition for a “yes” vote was seen as treason by many voters, including their own.
Front National’s euroscepticism is rapidly infusing into France’s position in the EU.
France’s position in the Brexit negotiations is therefore more than delicate. If the French is seen as too lenient towards the UK government, any concession would be advertised as another sign of weakness and loss of sovereignty. Should its stance be too tough, eventually alienating its negotiating partners, and paving the way to a Brexit, a precedent would have been set, on which FN would be playing. Counter to classic Clausewitz logic, having a weak France as opposing partner in the Brexit/BritIn negotiations will not be helpful to Mr Cameron’s ambitions; a French government imploding in national election mode, feeding the domestic agenda of a FN driven constituency will be at risk of not having any external flexibility to accommodate UK wants.
This leaves us with a puzzling question: could it be that one of the most influential EU politicians in 2016 will be Marine le Pen, a marginalized MEP and Eurosceptic regional MP? FN is not in power; its euroscepticism is however rapidly infusing into France’s position in the EU. By this, the new benchmark of French politics could very well become the mark by which we measure the flood through EU as a whole.