French politicians try to capitalize on Brexit

Deutsche Welle
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French presidential hopefuls are falling over each other in their post-Brexit assessments and how they could use the referendum to their benefit in next year’s elections. Elizabeth Bryant reports from Paris.
French far-right leader Marine le Pen exults in the British exit vote as a call to freedom. Conservative politician Nicolas Dupont-Aignan predicts that the European Union is “in a terminal phase.” Ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy wants a new EU treaty, while his successor, Francois Hollande, hopes to shore up the bloc’s badly shaken foundations.

With less than a year to go before French elections next April and May, presidential hopefuls of every political stripe are scrambling to capitalize on last week’s Brexit referendum, hoping to win over a morose and disaffected electorate. “The European question and of course the Brexit vote are going to be one of the campaign issues,” analyst Bruno Cautres, of the Cevipov political institute in Paris, told DW. “European questions divide the left and the right.”

Polls show that many French voters have little use for Brussels and its bureaucracy. A June survey by the Pew Research Center in Washington found that a resounding 61 percent of the French view the EU unfavorably – markedly higher than in Britain (48 percent), or Germany (49 percent). Many here also disapprove of the way Brussels has handled hot-button issues such as immigration and the economy.

“I don’t know what the European Union is giving me every day,” Paris salesman Vic Guilloux said, pointing to the visa-free Schengen block – which also includes non-EU countries – as the only perk. “For traveling around the different countries, yes,” he told DW. “Except for that, I don’t see much.”

Brexit boost for Le Pen

At first glance, Brexit’s results offer a powerful boost for the National Front’s Le Pen and her party’s anti-Europe, anti-immigrant discourse. “Stop pouting,” she told largely glum-looking European Parliament lawmakers in Brussels this week, describing the British vote as Europe’s most significant event since the fall of the Berlin Wall – one that helps speed up the bloc’s demise.

“Calls for referendums are ringing throughout the Continent,” Le Pen wrote in an opinion piece in The New York Times. “More and more, the destiny of the European Union resembles the destiny of the Soviet Union, which died from its own contractions.”

She hopes to quicken that end, vowing to hold a “Frexit” poll if she’s elected. With Le Pen polling strongly over the past year, the prospect is not just wishful thinking, although analysts don’t see her winning a runoff.

Other presidential wannabes are also issuing strong calls for fundamentally reforming the EU, if not completely overhauling a project that grew out of a postwar coal and steel pact between France and Germany.

“We can’t respond to a historic crisis by small measures; we need to change the rules,” said former President Sarkozy, who heads the center-right Republicans Party, and who is eying another run. “To change the rules, we need a new treaty.”

Anti-Brussels rhetoric

Though such discourse is not unique to France – populist parties elsewhere in Europe are embracing it – it has triggered some alarm bells.

“Sarkozy has really intensified his anti-Brussels rhetoric, and that’s a very big problem,” said Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer, head of the German Marshall Fund of the US’s Paris office. “When you have mainstream parties adopting the anti-Brussels rhetoric from the far right, to me that’s a very dangerous trend,” she told DW.

Hollande is taking a diametrically opposite path, investing his shrinking political capital in Brussels. While acknowledging the EU needs reforming, he’s rejected calls for a French referendum, saying next year’s election will serve that purpose.

“The British example will then be an example – or rather a counterexample,” he told local media.

Indeed, some believe that Brexit’s chaotic fallout may offer Hollande an opportunity to revamp his sagging fortunes.

“Mr. Hollande tries to use ‘Brexit’ to rebound in Brussels and Paris,” Le Monde newspaper wrote, citing a French minister describing presidential hopes to “carry the people’s aspirations … of a different Europe.”

“Francois Hollande’s popularity is very weak, the economic recovery is not good, and the left is divided. So he badly needed something to happen – and now we have Brexit,” analyst Cautres said.

Surveys also show that the French still tip toward membership – at least for now. A recent TNS Sofres-Onepoint poll found that 45 percent backed remaining part of the EU, while another third supported leaving. Another 22 percent were undecided.

Bread-and-butter issues

“Especially if we continue to see this terrible economic data and all the internal infighting in the UK, the French may think twice before voting for a Frexit,” said Marco Incerti, spokesman for the Center for European Policy Studies, a Brussels-based think tank.

But opting for a safe choice doesn’t necessarily mean a vote for Hollande.

Incerti, for one, is betting on a win by former Prime Minister Alain Juppe, a center-right politician who has ruled out a British-style referendum but still wants a massive rethink of the European project.

Cautres agrees that Hollande’s EU positioning is unlikely to pay off. Ultimately, he says, the French election will turn on bread-and-butter issues like jobs and the economy.

“Francois Hollande is probably going to play on the same things he did during the last election,” Cautres said. “He’s going to call for renegotiating Europe, reorienting Europe. But I have big doubts it’s going to work a second time.”

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