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France's Future in EU Part of Presidential Campaign

  • Lisa Bryant

FILE - A French flag is seen alongside a European Union flag at the National Assembly in Paris, France, June 28, 2016.

FILE - A French flag is seen alongside a European Union flag at the National Assembly in Paris, France, June 28, 2016.

The decision by British voters to leave the European Union has raised the question of whether France could one day follow suit in a "Frexit." Marine Le Pen, the head of France's far-right National Front party, has campaigned for years for her country to leave the 28-member grouping.

“Stop pouting,” an exultant Le Pen told fellow lawmakers at the European Parliament this past week, describing Britain's exit vote, known as "Brexit," as the most important event since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“This is a slap in the face against a European system increasingly founded on fear, blackmail and lies,” she said to scattered boos.

The results in Britain offer a powerful affirmation of Le Pen’s anti-immigration, anti-Europe arguments, less than a year before French presidential elections.

A poster reading "Brexit, And now France" is seen near French flags before a news conference at the France's far-right National Front political party headquarters in Nanterre near Paris.

A poster reading "Brexit, And now France" is seen near French flags before a news conference at the France's far-right National Front political party headquarters in Nanterre near Paris.

Impact on French politics

Nor is she the only politician weighing in. With elections next year, presidential hopefuls of all political stripes are scrambling to capitalize on Brexit’s fallout.

Conservative politician Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, who heads the tiny Debout la France (France Arise) party, predicts the bloc is in a “terminal phase,” while far left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon calls for ‘changing it or leaving’ it.

Former president Nicolas Sarkozy, who heads the center-right Republicans party, wants a new European treaty, while others want an overhaul of its institutions and purpose.

“The European question and of course the Brexit vote are going to be one of the campaign issues,” said analyst Bruno Cautres, of the Cevipov political institute in Paris. “European questions divide the left and the right.”

Like their British counterparts, French voters have little use for Brussels and its bureaucracy.

A June survey by the Pew Research Center in Washington found 61 percent of French view the EU unfavorably — markedly higher than among Britons (48 percent). Many here also disapprove of the way Brussels has handled issues like immigration and the economy.

News vendor Louay Joud says he can't care less about Brexit. (L. Bryant/VOA)

News vendor Louay Joud says he can't care less about Brexit. (L. Bryant/VOA)

Salesman Hugo Guillot, eating a hamburger at a British pub in Paris, said he might vote for a "Frexit" if France held a similar referendum today.

“I want the EU to return to what’s interesting for European people,” he says,“for politicians and European technocrats to realize the real problems we face and what’s important for us.”

Still, analyst Cautres said there’s a big cross-Channel difference.

“In the UK, it’s been mostly about national sovereignty, immigration and borders while in France, the dominant discourse on the left and the right is not whether we should be in or out of the EU," he said. "It’s the EU for what reason? The EU for whose benefit?”

Indeed, surveys show that however disillusioned French may feel about Brussels, they’re not ready to leave it.

A recent TNS Sofres-Onepoint poll found that 45 percent backed remaining in the bloc, while one-third supported leaving. Another 22 percent were undecided.

Parisian retiree Guy Maurette said, “Europe needs to completely change the way it functions,” even as he embraced the concept of a united Europe.

“Europe is peace; Europe is civilization. The more we are a united family, the better things are,” he said.

That hasn’t stopped Le Pen from coasting on the grumbling. On and off the campaign trail, she vows to hold a Frexit if she’s elected to office.

The prospect is not impossible. The Front scores strongly in popularity polls, although few experts believe Le Pen will win the second round runoff vote next May.

Other presidential hopefuls are also calling for fundamental reforms, if not overhauling the EU completely.

“We can’t respond to a historic crisis by small measures; we need to change the rules,” said former president Sarkozy, who is eyeing another run. “To change the rules, we need a new treaty.”

If 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 United States' Paris office. “When you have mainstream parties adopting the anti-Brussels rhetoric from the far right, to me that’s a very dangerous trend.”

An opportunity for Hollande?

Meanwhile, France’s deeply unpopular leader is taking the opposite path, investing his shrinking political capital in Brussels.

While acknowledging the EU needs reforming, President Francois Hollande rejects 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 counter-example,” he told local media.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, right, speaks with French President Francois Hollande during a round table meeting at an EU summit in Brussels on Tuesday, June 28, 2016.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, right, speaks with French President Francois Hollande during a round table meeting at an EU summit in Brussels on Tuesday, June 28, 2016.

Some believe Hollande sees in Brexit’s chaotic fallout an opportunity to revamp his sagging fortunes.

“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,” said analyst Cautres. “The Brexit is going to offer him the chance to look like a European leader, someone with a vision, who's going to propose a fundamental change in the EU.”

Still, he doubts Hollande’s chances of succeeding, predicting the vote will turn around issues — like increasing jobs and growing the economy - on which the president has failed to deliver.

He may be right. Asked about the Brexit, newsstand worker Louay Joud responds with a shrug. "Who cares?".

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