Britain’s departure meant the end of an era. France’s departure would mean the end of the EU.
After Grexit and Brexit, the next crisis to confront the European Union will be Frexit. It will prove to be the worst of all. While dramatic, the Greek tragedy had a limited run. While seismic, the British divorce will not necessarily upend Brussels. But for historical and institutional reasons, a French crisis would be cataclysmic. The midwife for the EU’s birth, France now risks becoming its gravedigger.
The ruin and rubble of World War II had not been entirely cleared when France laid the foundations for the European Union. As former Interior Minister Jean-Pierre Chevènement rightly observed last week, France is the EU’s “founding nation par excellence, the only nation capable of taking the initiative to begin Europe’s construction at the start of the 1950s.” Behind the drab language of the EU’s various treaties lay a truly heroic ideal: By ever-closer economic, monetary, and political union, the countries of Europe, led by two nations that had repeatedly been at one another’s throats in the 19th and 20th centuries, would make war and material want things of the past. As the Frenchman Jean Monnet, the guiding spirit of this new Europe, declared: “Continue, continue: There is no future for the people of Europe other than in union.”
By the same token, the French believe, rightly, there can be no Europe without the people of their own glorious nation. That corollary breathes life into France’s traditional conception of a united Europe and thus lends vitality to the continent’s abstract ideals. It also motivates Europe’s traditional bouts of frustration with France. Upon coming to power in 1958, Charles de Gaulle insisted upon the necessity of a “European Europe.” In principle, this meant a united Europe of equals; in practice, de Gaulle meant a Europe in which France would be more equal than the others. Tellingly, when he signed the Rome Treaty in 1958 (the future EU’s act of conception), it was not because he believed in “Europe.” Instead, it was because he believed in an independent and sovereign France, one yoked to the accomplishment of “great undertakings.” De Gaulle accepted the EU because it ensured France’s own magnificence.
A funny thing happened, though, on France’s way to a future of peace and prosperity. While the former grew humdrum, the latter grew hazier. After enjoying the 30-year period of postwar growth — known as the “trente glorieuses” — the French economy faltered during the oil crisis of the early 1970s and never fully recovered. While successive French governments continued to lay bricks for the European project, they failed to restart the national economy — which slowed from an annual average of 4 percent during the trente glorieuses to slightly more than 1 percent now forecast for 2017 — just as they failed to resolve the predicament of the growing number of unemployed, which currently stands at slightly more than 10 percent.
As the foundations of a new European order were being laid, France’s imperial past caught up with it as hundreds of thousands of immigrants from its former colonies in North Africa — Morocco, Tunisia, and especially Algeria — settled in the country. Recruited to fill jobs created during the trente glorieuses, these same immigrants found the welcome mat pulled from under their feet as France’s economy slowed and then headed south by the end of the 20th century. By the turn of the 21st century, the diffuse fear of “le grand replacement” — coined by the essayist Renaud Camus and positing the submersion of a white and Christian France by Arab and Muslim immigrants — had become an article of faith among the growing number of French turning to the extreme right-wing Front National (FN).
The waxing of supranational institutions, the waning of the national economy, the appearance of new immigrant communities, the disappearance of old industries and jobs: All of these are the tributaries spilling into the brackish bog called Frexit. As with Brexit, Frexit is fundamentally a crisis of national identity. The inability of both conservative and socialist governments to redress the growing social and economic fissures in French society, and to reinvent the republican model for the 21st century, has encouraged the retreat to nativism and nationalism. Tellingly, a 2015 poll revealed that if the 2005 referendum on the European Constitution were to be held again, 62 percent of respondents would vote against it, a 7 percent rise from the original “non” vote.
It is a crisis, moreover, the French government seems incapable of addressing. The day after the British vote was tallied, and the stock markets went into a tailspin, President François Hollande went before the nation and again underwhelmed it. He explained that “Europe could not go on as before,” expounded on the need to “reinforce the eurozone and democratic governance,” and exhorted Europe to take the necessary “leap” to secure its future. Stapled to the end of these oft-repeated pieties — spoken by a president with the mien of a funeral home director — was a solemn chestnut: “History,” Hollande intoned, “is knocking at our door.”
It remains unclear when or whether Hollande will open the door. Not only are 26 other nations huddled behind the same door squabbling over how to answer the knocking, but the weightiest nation seems in no great hurry to answer it at all. While Hollande was, in his inimitable style, urging his fellow leaders — in particular, German Chancellor Angela Merkel — to make haste, Merkel agreed that Europe must make haste, but slowly. Very slowly. After meeting with the leaders of Germany’s political parties, Merkel appealed for “calm and determination” and warned against “simple and fast solutions that would only further divide Europe.” In a word, whereas Hollande urged the principal duo of the EU, France and Germany, to take the lead, Merkel instead emphasized gemeinsam, or collective, action. (Over the last 48 hours, Merkel and Hollande have taken great pains to broadcast their unity. Whether this is the case in 48 days remains to be seen.)
Adding to Hollande’s woes, collective action by his own party seems as unlikely as that by the European Union. Just days before the Brexit vote, Hollande bowed to mounting pressure within the Socialist Party to hold a primary next January to choose its presidential candidate. With an approval rating only slightly better than Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu’s on the eve of his sudden removal from office in 1989 — according to a recent Le Monde poll, just 16 percent of French voters agree Hollande is a “good president” — the Socialist leader had little choice in the matter.
The tumult is greatest on the party’s left. Shortly before the Brexit vote, Arnaud Montebourg was unpersuasively denying reports that he planned to enter the primary race. Having been tapped by Hollande to serve as economy minister, Montebourg found himself unemployed in 2014 when the government, scrambling to meet the EU’s deficit requirements, largely swallowed its austerity demands. Not only has Montebourg since been a consistent critic of these policies, but his earlier anti-globalization sentiments — summarized in his 2011 manifesto Votez pour la démondialisation (Vote for De-Globalization) — are now crystallizing into a “dé-europisation” stance.
Montebourg is not the only prominent figure on the left who is, as he recently described himself, “euro-épuisé,” or “Euro-exhausted.” Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the perennial presidential candidate of the Parti de Gauche, has long inveighed against “the caste of Eurocrats and politics of austerity” imposed on EU member states. Not surprisingly, he welcomed the Brexit vote as a reality check for the French political class, as well as a promising harbinger of his own political prospects. “This is the beginning of the end to an era,” he exclaimed. “Either we change the European Union or we leave it.”
Though he hotly refuses such comparisons, Mélenchon’s reasoning and rhetoric echo that of his ideological opposite and nemesis, Marine Le Pen. Among the ways Le Pen has transformed the party founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, is to have turned inside out its relation to Europe. Fervently anti-Communist, anti-Gaullist, and thus pro-Europeanist during the Cold War, the FN began its long lurch toward its current hyper-nationalism with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The near-death of the Maastricht Treaty referendum in 1992, the full death of the European Constitution in the 2005 referendum, and its resurrection two years later in the widely despised Lisbon Treaty (signed by then-President Nicolas Sarkozy without a referendum) showed Le Pen père and fille the electoral advantages of mining the deepening vein of popular alienation from Brussels.
In the wake of the Brexit vote, Le Pen could scarcely contain her satisfaction. At a short press conference at the her party’s headquarters, Le Pen stood in front of a newly minted poster displaying a pair of hands breaking free of a handcuff made of gold stars. For those unable to interpret the image, there also ran a caption: “And Now France!” Indeed. In her opening remarks, Le Pen congratulated the British people — along with the “very brave” Boris Johnson and her “friend and ally” Janice Atkinson (a European Parliament deputy formerly with the UK Independence Party) — for reminding France that, yes, “it is possible to leave the European Union.” She also abstained from playing the religion, race, and immigration cards that brought her to prominence: The French already know the hand she is holding. As a result, she mentioned the word “immigration” just once but repeated more than a dozen times the words “liberty” and “democracy” — the very values born in Europe, she has argued, but scorned by the EU and France’s traditional political parties.
“Who would have imagined, just a few months ago, what has since become an imposing reality?” When Le Pen posed the question at her news conference, it was not mere rhetoric. Her conviction that Brexit has rendered Frexit, as well as her quest for the Élysée, all the more conceivable is no longer the stuff of fantasy.
In 2014, Le Pen was already promising that, if elected to the presidency, her first order of business would be to schedule a referendum on whether France should remain in the EU. Suddenly, this promise seems a bit less fantastic, all the more because she has largely succeeded in making the FN a party like the others. (In a recent and underreported finding by France’s prestigious polling institute, the IFOP, the historic gap between those who say they will vote for the FN and those who do vote for it has almost entirely closed. This suggests, as IFOP director Jérôme Fourquet notes, that the shame FN voters once felt is a thing of the past.) In the most recent salvo of polls from early June, in which the French were asked for their presidential preferences, Le Pen is the first over the finish line. In nearly every poll, she breaks the barrier of 30 percent, leaving her competitors in the dust.
For the moment, the nature of France’s electoral process — in which the top two finishers face off in a second round of voting — remains a rampart against a Le Pen presidency. Polls reveal that the only competitor she would defeat in the second round is the discredited and derided François Hollande. The candidacies of Alain Juppé and Sarkozy, the leading contestants for the nomination of the conservative Les Républicains, pose another obstacle. In a projected second round, both men would attract enough voters from the center and left to decisively defeat Le Pen. Finally, Le Pen’s path to the Élysée is also mined by the French public’s complex attitude toward the European Union. In an Odoxa poll taken last week, the French clearly stated that while they cannot live with the EU, they also cannot live without it. Sixty-four percent of respondents do not wish to see France quit the EU, yet at the same time only 31 percent saw the EU as a “source of hope.”
Yet, as Le Pen underscored in her press conference, much can happen in the 10 months remaining between now and France’s presidential elections. Juppé’s Europeanism and economic liberalism can easily morph into political liabilities; by the same token, voters will not forget that Sarkozy, who now insists that the Lisbon Treaty be rewritten, had rammed through that same treaty in 2007 when he was president. Most important, if the United Kingdom manages a smooth divorce from the EU, a majority of French voters may come to see a “grande France” as a source of hope, just as a majority of British voters last week saw hope in a Little England.
By Robert Zaretsky