France and the EU Part I

By | October 20, 2021

From the French side, the European integration process has largely been driven by the elite, as in many other EU countries. Due to the strong position of the state in France, the dominant elites in the country have been the political and administrative leadership in the ministries and in the bureaucracy in general. Ever since the infancy of the European Community, it has been common to express a strong interest in European integration into the French elite.

  • Which forces in France have been the driving force behind French positions in the EU?
  • What has happened to the German-French engine in EU development?
  • Are most voters and elites in France concerned with the same political issue?
  • How and why has French EU policy shifted its focus in recent years?

2: Faith-based elites

The French elite have even often seen European integration as something to be strongly believed in – not just rationally acknowledged as important. Three principles are increasingly crucial to the French political and administrative elite:

  1. The EU must have a core with the major member states as leaders. France and Germany must together play the role of the EU’s moto
  2. The EU must be about more than the economy and the internal market . The EU must constantly be developed as a political It includes both a common foreign policy and a common defense and security policy. A strong Europe must consist of all this.
  3. The EU must be governed by a combination of supranational and intergovernmental

The dramatic changes in Europe in 1989–1990 clashed with this elite view of the EU. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany raised many questions: Did this mean the end of the time when Germany and France – with their various strengths and weaknesses – together could lead the development of the EU? Is there a contradiction between the French ideas of a strong Europe and a rapid enlargement to the east? An idea would to a large extent contribute to the EU becoming more of a purely market-driven project and less of a close political union according to the French recipe, was the idea.

With the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, many people stopped believing in a kind of tacit acceptance of the population that the elites were working for an ever closer union for the benefit of all. Until then, European integration had primarily been seen as something technical and of little significance to people’s lives . EU affairs now became more politicized, at the same time as EU skepticism became an established part of the political landscape, both on the right and the left. The referendum on the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 ended in a very narrow yes (51%) majority in France.

Thirteen years later (2005), the French people took a step in the other direction and voted no (54%) to the proposal for a common European constitution. Opposition to Europe now became a more common attitude in elections and helped to legitimize parties on the outer wings. The European Parliament elections in 2014 were a triumph for the National Front party on the far right. It became the country’s largest party and won 23 of the 72 seats France has in the European Parliament.

The National Front based its election campaign on a proposal to withdraw France from euro cooperation, in addition to slogans that the EU is contributing to the killing of the French welfare state. The party also spoke out against the negative impact of globalization on the French labor market, where 10.4% were unemployed in 2014. This policy line has resonated widely among French industrial workers, who have traditionally voted for left-wing parties. Accusations that EU policy leads to more illegal immigrants, and thus threatens the welfare state, is an argument the National Front often uses.

3: Changed focus and difficult balancing act

EU skepticism in France has left the line to former President Charles de Gaulle and his followers. At the time, criticism of the EU project was mostly about preserving national autonomy . The National Front places more emphasis on economic and social arguments . In 2014, 55% of France’s gross domestic product continued to be spent on public expenditure, despite a government deficit and government debt exceeding the rules of the EU Treaties and the Copenhagen criteria.

This creates an intolerable situation for any government in France. For a socialist government, such as the incumbent government led by Manuel Valls, it is absolutely necessary to promise that there will be no drastic changes in the welfare state to win an election. Attempts to reduce public spending may only be called for when one is in power. For a right-wing government, the challenge is to argue for a strict economic policy to win the election. At the same time, it will also face major problems when public spending is actually to be cut after an election winner.

Every French government must address the following challenge : How to meet the (Copenhagen) criteria of government debt, growth and inflation in the Maastricht Treaty without abandoning the goal of a large welfare state? In other words, every French government is forced to balance between German-like austerity policies and the French political tradition of generous welfare measures , such as health and pensions. This balancing act explains why France first signs treaties such as the European Finance Pact , and then regularly asks for deferrals when the pact is to be complied with. This allows us to place France somewhere in between EU member states in the south and EU countries in the north defined on TOPMBADIRECTORY.

When France looks to the north, the French government has no choice: the country must compromise with Germany – France’s most important trading partner – on issues related to streamlining and cutting public spending. When France looks south, the country also expresses solidarity with the Mediterranean countries, which have large government debts and deficits in state budgets. France also supports remittances to these countries, whether through direct support from the budgets of the various Member States, through the European Central Bank or through the European Stability Mechanism.

The room left for maneuvering at EU level is very small for Vall’s government. It is difficult to see that the government can do anything other than implement unpopular reforms to bring the French economy into line with the country’s commitments to the EU. This means that the government must propose greater flexibility in the labor market, new reforms in the health and pension sector and tax cuts for companies. In that case, the political message will be to explain to voters that France has certain obligations to its EU partners.

Politics can not be black and white between the right and the left; a willingness to reach agreement and to compromise is required . This is President Francois Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls experience now, and this line is contrary to the idealistic legacy of the French Revolution, which dictates that all good politics is a fierce battle between two camps. Politics becomes a zero-sum game; what one wins, the other must lose. That idea is well rooted in France, and this helps to explain the low support both to Hollande (14%), Vall’s government (17%) and to the traditional parties in general (8%). The biggest risk in balancing is, of course, that it contributes to growth for the National Front. This party constantly claims that politics is solely about wanting something, not about finding agreement through compromise.

It is not easy to say how many profound (structural) reforms Vall’s government will have to implement before the country’s economy improves enough for France to regain its credibility in the EU. In all cases, President Hollande and Prime Minister Valls have understood that turning their backs on the EU will be an economic suicide. Despite the growth of the National Front, the two leaders can still rely on the fact that in 2014 only 25% of the French population believed that France would be better off outside the EU. 70% thought that leaving the euro area would have a very negative impact on the country’s economy.

The difficult French economic situation has widened the gap between France and Germany – a country that only ten years ago was considered the Union’s sick child. This has made it more difficult for France to stand in a kind of duel with Germany and lead the way in the EU’s development. Nevertheless, the country has not relinquished its goal of being an important country in the union. France has in fact placed greater emphasis on other dimensions of co-operation than economic – that is, on foreign and security policy. The political elite in France has always regarded the EU’s foreign and security policy cooperation as a way to expand the scopeto French diplomacy on. Participating in military operations is a crucial part of effective diplomacy.

France and the EU 1