A troubled emperor

The French president faces a plethoraof problems from Brexit to beyond

Simon Heffer

Many Britons will have been touched by the message put out in the name of President Emmanuel Macron, on the eve of Brexit, to say how much the French people longed for continued friendship with their now-recusant neighbour. It reflected the sense of resignation among most remainers in Britain, and our European partners, that the chances of reversing the decision taken in the 2016 referendum, always slim, were now non-existent—and a sense that everyone, however formerly hostile, is now trying to make the best of what they consider to be a bad job.

From the French president’s point of view it is a brave stance indeed: for France stands to lose economically, and Macron and his friends politically, by Britain leaving the European Union. It doubtless informed Michel Barnier’s almost comical inflexibility during the drawn-out negotiations. It is why for months the French press, particularly that part of it sympathetic to the president, has been entertaining its readers from time to time about the inevitable problems that will face the British once, having made our bed, we had to lie on it.

One of the standing jokes popular among the French people has been prospective food shortages—so much so that a French friend asked me to alert her if a “care package” of cheese would be useful. However, perhaps as a sign of grace, Le Figaro invited the leading British historian of France, Professor Robert Tombs, to write on the eve of Brexit, telling the French in explicit terms that many in Britain viewed Europe as a continent without much of a future. His contribution was balanced, inevitably, by the usual warnings that the coming trade negotiations will not be straightforward. This is probably something of an understatement, even though Europe, with its substantial trade surplus, has more to lose from digging its heels in than Britain does.

Two immediate problems face France in the aftermath of the British departure from the EU. It is now the next largest economy in the Union after Germany, and as such will have to do more than most to help make good the hole in the EU budget that Britain will leave. Also, a Britain that has the flexibility to make fiscal and trading arrangements unconstrained by EU rules could be one that becomes even more appealing to talented French workers. In 2017 the French consulate in London estimated that between 300,000 and 400,000 of their nationals lived in the British capital. At the time of Brexit French ministers crowed that their people would soon be returning home; the exodus has yet to happen.

The second problem is that the example of Britain actually leaving the EU is one the French government, and especially Macron himself, are loath to have the French people think about. Opinion about the EU in France is, at best, ambivalent. Days before the 2016 referendum in Britain, a Pew Research Centre poll showed that 61 per cent of the French had an “unfavourable” view of the EU. It may be that the spectacle of Britain fighting a sort of civil war for three-and-a-half years had the intimidating effect on the French that Brussels, in its inflexibility, intended. A YouGov poll conducted last November showed that while less than half of French voters would choose to stay in the EU at a referendum, just 25 per cent would vote to leave, 19 per cent did not know, and 8 per cent said they would not vote.

Those figures might, taken superficially, please Macron. He has always advanced an undiluted programme of ever-closer Union, presumably because, once Angela Merkel leaves the stage, he expects to assume the role of the EU’s de facto emperor—even though he lacks Germany’s resources. Merkel has always slapped him down on plans to deepen the Union, not least because her perceptiveness and experience tell her that it is not popular in many member countries (including France).

The French president is at one with the Brussels bureaucracy, which would be delighted to see him as the high-profile face of their project; but in his federalist enthusiasms he is once more displaying his tin ear. Already in the last 18 months his metropolitan liberal vision of the future of France has inspired the gilets jaunes, a modern-day poujadiste movement against whom his only strategy—not entirely unsuccessful—has been to grit his teeth and hope they will go away.

His attempts to undertake necessary reforms of France’s chaotic and expensive pensions arrangements have been met by a crippling wave of strikes. Macron is so vividly identified with the European integrationist project that it can only be a matter of time before the enormous forces now ranged against him in France rally round the flag of Euroscepticism.

The summer that is now fast approaching is likely to be one of growing discontent. Marine Le Pen, leader of the Rassemblement National (RN), has launched her campaign for the presidential elections to be held in April and May 2022. Under the French system, where the winner is the better of two candidates in a second, the odds are stacked against her. The candidate of the populist Right always acts as a unifying force to attract the majority of the French public to vote against him or her (though Le Pen did nearly twice as well in 2017 as her father Jean-Marie, when he reached the final round against Jacques Chirac in 2002). With Brexit now a reality, and only 47 per cent of the French actively pro-EU, the question of continued membership is likely to be raised: the supposed impossibility of France leaving is now, palpably, nothing of the sort. And the RN, under Le Pen, is likely to provide the lightning-rod for an already beleaguered president. It is as improbable France will hold a vote on its continued membership of the EU as it is that Le Pen will be the next president; but just to have the matter of the EU’s influence on France, and on French prosperity, debated in a presidential election campaign is the last thing Macron needs.

With Britain’s departure, the narrative of permanence and indissolubility on which the European project, and French compliance with it, have relied has been broken. The aim of successive French governments to keep the EU intact has been founded on the desire to lock Germany in with them in an institution bigger than either. But now they know that nothing, even membership of the EU, is forever. The French people may decide, as their British friends did in 2016, to stop doing as they are told.

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