Oct 2nd 2003
From The Economist print edition
The French are increasingly ambivalent about Europe—and their place in it
TIME was, Europe served as a useful device for French politicians. It enabled them to impose unpopular reforms—privatisation, energy liberalisation, cuts to farm subsidies—in the name of a popular, greater European, good. But an increasingly prickly relationship between France and the European Commission has begun to produce an uncomfortable sensation: is French Euroscepticism on the rise?
The immediate cause of the spat with the commission turns on the government's budget deficit for 2004. In the budget unveiled last week by Francis Mer, the finance minister, France plans in 2004 to exceed the 3% limit imposed by the European Union's stability pact for the third year running, this time reaching 3.6%. Despite scolding, France says it will not make further changes to bring the deficit into line by October 3rd, as requested by European finance ministers. They must then decide whether to start the procedure for punishing France, which could end in a fine. The irritation in Brussels is palpable: the French understanding of rules, goes a widespread feeling, is that they apply to everybody else.
For their part, the French are exasperated by what they regard as a narrow-minded Brussels obsession with such rules and an inflexible disregard for the broader picture. The government of Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the prime minister, has bent over backwards in the past month, argue its officials, to bring the deficit under control. Yes, it has been clumsy and careless in its choice of words, declaring breezily that France had other priorities than controlling the deficit (Mr Mer) or solving mathematical problems to the satisfaction of others (Mr Raffarin). But it has delivered a budget that freezes spending and reduces the structural deficit by 0.7%, not far off the 1% cut that EU finance ministers wanted.
France feels bossed about by Brussels in other ways too. The commission threatened, for instance, to block the government's recent bail-out of Alstom, an engineering group, approving a rescue plan only after France agreed to last-minute changes. It is now demanding the overdue repayment of loans the government made last year to Bull, a computer group.
On top of this, French unease about the implications of the EU's enlargement is growing too. The fear is that a Europe of 25 will turn into little more than an economic zone, less glued together politically, and in which France will struggle to retain its traditional influence as Germany looks east. The French are the most hostile of all EU nationalities to enlargement, with only 31% in favour and 54% against, according to Eurobarometer's poll last spring. This disquiet has fed into a general French glumness, reflected in a recent clutch of much-discussed books. “Europe is no longer, or less and less, seductive,” laments a recent editorial in Le Monde.
The upshot of all this is threefold. First, and in the short run, the French government is trying to persuade the commission that it is in its own interests not to fan Euro-hostility by imposing further spending cuts for 2004. “We need Brussels to understand”, says one official, “that Europe as an idea will suffer if they insist.” Whether or not the commission buys this, the strategy of using Brussels to enforce domestic French reform may have run its course.
The second is a deepening ambivalence about the wisdom of holding a referendum on the EU’s new constitution. In the past, President Jacques Chirac has promised that it would be “ratified by the people”. This view has now been softened to simply a “preference” for a referendum. The blunt realisation is taking hold that the French might well say no.
French scepticism is far weaker than in Britain, where only 30% now say EU membership is “a good thing”, next to 50% of the French and 54% in the Union as a whole. But support has slipped from a year ago. And nobody forgets that the French approved the Maastricht treaty by only a bee's whisker. Moreover, the ruling Union for a Popular Movement is divided over the matter—as is the opposition Socialist Party. There would be plenty of sceptical voices in any referendum campaign.
The third upshot is a reinforced sense of urgency within the Elysée over the need to forge ahead with a “pioneering group”, to use Mr Chirac's preferred term. Officially, the point is to strengthen the heart of Europe, in areas such as defence, among those countries that wish to participate. But the project is also an attempt to preserve French influence in an enlarged Europe and to fortify Europe as an alternative hub of power to the United States.
It is unclear whether any of this, even if feasible, will stem the Euro-disaffection in France. Do the French really want “more Europe” as a response to their growing disillusion? Perhaps, if the outcome is renewed French influence. Mr Chirac's stand against the war in Iraq was hugely popular in a France that feared it had lost its global voice. Yet the risk is high. According to polls, those most worried about enlargement are the elderly, those in north and eastern France, and the least educated: precisely the recruiting ground for France's most Eurosceptical politician of all, the far-right National Front's Jean-Marie Le Pen.
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