Guest article: The emergence of Euroscepticism in France. How the Front National challenged the political status-quo.

A few months before the presidential election in France, Euroscepticism is in all debates. Here are some elements of understanding of this phenomenon.

From 1951 to 1992: No real presence of euroscepticism in France

In 1951 France with Belgium, West Germany, Italy, Netherlands and Luxembourg have founded the European Coal and Steel Community. In 1957 the European Economic Community and the European Atomic Energy Community. In 1992 the Maastricht Treaty signed by 12 European countries has created the European Union. During this period the French citizens were clearly pro-European. At these times the French economy met an huge economic growth, and the idea to implement peace by having economic partnerships was clearly popular. In this period was included the «Trente Glorieuse» era. This notion refers to the period from 1945 to 1975,  a period of high prosperity. The productivity in the country was strong, the average wage was high, the unemployment rate was very low. Moreover a very efficient system of social benefits was build in France. Thus at this time the French opinion about Europe was good.

From 1957 to 1992 there was a period of reconciliation between France and Germany. This reconciliation was symbolized especially by the French president Charles De Gaulle and the chancellor of Germany Konrad Adenauer or the couple François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl. The Franco-German couple considered Europe as an instrument of unity. This Franco-German couple was a kind of «engine» for Europe. Anyway there was a prosperity context of the European economy and politic. Two examples of successes are the creation of Airbus and the signature of the Schenghen Agreement in 1985 about an European area in which internal border checks have largely been abolished.

The absence of Euroscepticism in France could also be explained during this period by the European logic, which was more a logic of cooperation than a logic of integration (as it was in the early 2000’s). The logic of cooperation was clearly easier to accept for the French population than the logic of integration which is sometimes considered as a threat to the French national sovereignty.

To resume during this period the French public opinion on Europe was very good. The peace was implemented successfully, the economical and the political situations were satisfactory.

The referendum on the Maastricht Treaty (1992): A first sign of Euroscepticism in France

The treaty of Maastricht which has formally created the European Union was signed by France after a referendum which let appear some divisions in the French society. The «Yes» option won but with only 51% of the votes. During this election 49% of the French voters show their opposition to this European treaty. The turnout was about 69% and all of these result were considered as the first real sign of Euroscepticism in France.

Some French political actors as the former ministers Phillipe Séguin and  Charles Pasqua (right party) or Jean Pierre Chevènement (former minister from the left party) were against the treaty. It was the first time that some very influential French politicians expressed their objections to an European treaty.

The French society was divided, the politicians who supported the «No» option considered this treaty as the treaty for «a Europe of merchants and technocrats». This was the moment when Euroscepticism gained a kind of credibility in the France.

2005: The first victory of Euroscepticism in France

On the 29th of May 2005, the French European Constitution referendum took place. This was about to decide whether France should ratify the Constitution fo the European Union. The project was rejected with 55% of the votes and the turnout was about 69%. At this occasion many French politicians like the former prime minister Laurent Fabius have militated for the «No» campaign . It’s important to mention that the French Constitution was modified to allow its coexistence with the European Constitution. This modification was agreed after an extraordinary joint session of deputies and senators at the palace of Versailles and all the French political parties of the Parliament voted for this change (excepted the French Communist Party). Thus the project was rejected by the French citizens while the French politicians were massively in favor of the project. The most important ideas invoked by the supporters of the «No» campaign were about the loss of the French national sovereignty, the objection to a European federalist logic and the complexity of the text which was considered by many as unreadable.

From 2011 to 2016: The emergence of a very powerful Eurosceptic party named «Front National»

The French far right party founded in 1972 named «Front National» was not really popular in France before 2011. But In 2011 the party replaced it’s historical president Jean-Marie Le Pen with  his daughter Marine Le Pen, and the party became more popular. Jean-Marie Le Pen was considered as a sulfurous person after he was condemned for antisemitic talks. Anyway Jean-Marie Le Pen stayed after for 4 years honorary president of the party.

After her election as president of the Front National, Marine Le Pen decided to implement some important changes about the ideology and the structure of her party.

Like her father she kept the ideology of the Front National by being clearly against immigration and gay marriage. But she put the opposition to the European Union as priority. 2014 was a good year regarding her strategy, as the Front National won the European elections in France. The Front National has collected 24% of the votes, the UMP (right party) got 20% of the vote and the Socialist Party only 13% of the vote. The Front National obtained 24 seats at the European Parliament.

In 2015 two major events happened. The first one is that Marine Le Pen led a successful fight to remove her father’s title of «honorary president of the Front national». This action was considered as a reject of the past of the party which was very sulfurous.

The second major change was the foundation of an Eurosceptic group with other Eurosceptic parties at the European Parliament. This new group at the European Parliament has been named «Europe of Nations and Freedom».

In France, according to the polls, Marine Le Pen is clearly the favorite candidate for the first round of the presidential election of 2017. Conversely all the surveys announce a large defeat for her at the second round. Anyway the Front National is a sovereignist and Eurosceptic party which is very popular in France.

A lot of explanations of this success could be mentionned. At first there is a real fear of the the French population about the migrant crisis, there are also divergences at the European level on this topic and there is also the catastrophic situation in Calais where  the migrants who want to go to the UK caused some troubles to the local population. Moreover the lack of agreements between France and Germany on the European decisions is a factor which cause also some troubles. In fact the lack of transparency of many project of treaties like the TTIP or the CETA is not appreciated by the French citizens and the Front National talk about that in all the debates. The lack of popularity of the French president François Hollande is also a real problem which create opportunities for the Front National. Moreover the discontent of a part of the French population about the frauds to the social  security system (which is considered as one of the best in the world) is also in the center of the critics of the Front National.

To conclude: the future of Euroscepticism in France will probably depend on improving the decision-making process in the EU and by considering the preoccupation of each citizens of the EU. The evolution of the political and economic situation in France will probably have an influence on the future of the Front National. Finally, the Franco-German friendship and more broadly the unity of Europe will surely have an influence on Euroscepticism in France. Two things are sure, the Front National is now very popular and the polls are not always trustworthy (we’ve seen it during the Brexit and the American elections).

Written by Clément Sonilhac