Francois Fillon, Emmanuel Macron, Jean Luc Melenchon, Marine Le Pen and Benoit Hamon during the first Presidential debate, March 20, 2017. Blondet Eliot/PA. All rights reserved.
Every country, just like any individual, has to live with its own mess and pay the price for it. And this unfortunately applies on both sides of the Channel. The UnitedKingdomians – is there any other word to define the four British and Northern Irish nations’ subjects, with their different, if not contradictory positions on Brexit? – just like the French.
Will the Channel – which used to be a formidable divide, only to become in 1994 a friendly leap thanks to Margaret Thatcher and François Mitterrand’s joint decision to build the Channel Tunnel – part us once again?
Will the foresight and pragmatic wisdom of the Iron Lady, who knew at the same time how to “want her money back” and benefit from the economic and political gains she could draw from the European Union, give way for good to the petty bickering ambitions of politicians hiding their weaknesses, short-sightedness and jingoism? In short, are we going to have a divorce by mutual consent or an endless marital fight like those we love to watch on American TV legal soaps?
Mind you, our politicians are not necessarily better than yours. Or others elsewhere. But we French are engulfed in a presidential campaign which is as bitter as Brexit and post-Brexit were, and still are. And both of us are still looking at each other – but also at Europe and the rest of the world – through our own blinkers, forgetting that we can’t at one and the same time live in a globalised world and play our silly little games in our own school-yards. Ridicule, after all, never killed anyone.
So, last Saturday, for the 60th anniversary of the EU, there were no demonstrations in France, neither official ones nor private, pro or con. And we went on with our election campaign. Yes the media, and sometimes politicians, do mention Brexit regularly, but like a sideshow or to justify their own campaign arguments. Except for the National Front (FN) and its leader Marine Le Pen, who in so many ways looks like a continental Nigel Farage. Not only in her extravagant, aggressive if not racist anti-EU and anti-immigrant rants, but as well in her ability to milk a European parliament they both loathe to fill up their respective parties’ coffers.
Le Pen can boast about what she calls the economic prowess achieved by the UK since Brexit. She can put the blame on Brussels and the EU for everything that does not go well, and even more. Nationalism is her flavour of the day, of the year and of the life of this extraordinary political dynasty from father to daughters, niece and in-laws or partners. But she is smart enough to realise that her dream of exiting the EU and the euro is far from being widely shared – and she has had to promise that this would have to be decided through a referendum. Le Pen is smart enough to realise that her dream of exiting the EU and the Euro is far from being widely shared and she has had to promise that this would have to be decided through a referendum. Things have changed in France since Brexit. People have noted the economic and social uncertainties which surround the UK, threatening its own unity. Around 70% of the French want to retain the euro and if a tiny majority think the EU has been of more benefit to other members (including of course the UK), almost 50% remain confident that it also has benefited France.
The French media are far less obsessed by the evilness of Europe and of immigration – especially illegal – and we don’t have tabloids. And when we hear about immigration, it mostly means “Muslim” immigration. But the French are also shocked by the situation in Calais and along the Channel as well as by London’s refusal to share the burden, humanely as well as financially. Many would like to scrap the French-British Sangatte protocols which allow the UK to have its immigration controls on French soil and not on British soil. Then you would see what manning a harbour with thousands of lorries and immigrants daily means.
November 2016. Construction on a UK-funded wall in Calais, aimed at preventing migrants boarding lorries bound for Britain. Gareth Fuller/PA.All rights reserved.
Things have changed since Brexit, people have noted the economic and social uncertainties which surround the UK, threatening its own unity.
Of the eleven official presidential candidates – six of them hoping at best for a few percentage points and at least more than one – one single candidate, Le Pen, is clearly leading a xenophobic campaign which has helped her to top opinion polls for months, thus granting her access to the second round, a position she now has to share with maverick candidate Emmanuel Macron.
Three say they are Europeans and pro-EU – right-winger François Fillon, far leftist populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon and rump socialist Benoît Hamon – but in their own way. Somehow, like mainstream UK politicians in the run-up to last year, they want a Frank Sinatra’s Europe, “My way”! Earlier this year Fillon went to Berlin to meet with Chancellor Angela Merkel just to criticise sharply the way Germany extended a welcome to so many refugees. And his joint European defence policy could be encapsulated, as "we select the targets, you pick up those of common interest, you lend us men and material, and then foot the bill.”
On the left, Mélenchon wants his own brand of Europe, unbound by economic, social or financial agreements already in place: no limits to budget deficits, no stability pact and priority accorded to national legislation, otherwise his Plan B would withdraw France from the EU and the euro, hoping for its “democratic, social and ecological re-foundation” by the peoples. Hamon is more European: he wants to keep the euro while breaking the 3% budget deficit rule and would like the Brussels bureaucracy counterbalanced by a new parliament of the peoples, overlooking the hard reality which is that, if all 27 EU countries’ voters were to be given a choice, they would certainly not vote for his Corbyn-like platform. Around 70% of the French want to retain the euro and if a tiny majority think the EU has been of more benefit to other members (including of course the UK), almost 50% remain confident that it also has benefited France.
The 39-year-old former Rothschild banker and President François Hollande’s economic minister, Macron has come out of nowhere since he left government last summer, disappointed by the slow pace of economic and social reforms, and founded his En Marche! Movement (Forward), now with 250,000 members. He is the only staunchly and openly pro-European French politician, never shy to brandish the EU banner. Lambasted for that by other politicians who consider him as far too young to lead – mind you, most have behind them three or four decades of political life and hardly any real work experience – he is hoping to realise something unheard of here – unlike the LibDem-Tory coalition and the ongoing German Grand Coalition – that is, uniting the “progressive” left, right, and centre on a common platform of bold reform.
His belief is that, in a country where the two main traditional parties, the PS (socialists) and Les Républicains (right), now represent only one third of voters and no party can hope to win a majority in parliament, it is the only sensible thing to do. And he can now boast support from members of Hollande’s government, centrist leaders and ex-Chirac and Sarkozy ministers.
This has put on a fascinating show for us – even if it has been sadly marred by Fillon and Le Pen’s alleged financial improprieties and embezzlement of public funding – which has understandingly overshadowed Brexit and its aftermaths in public opinion.
Sure – Brexit is regularly front-paged, a regular topic of conversation, hope for some, regret for many, but it remains at least for the moment a sideshow to our own somehow frightening and shocking campaign. We are used to laughing at our politicians, but also now at yours when they threaten not to buy our champagne any more, just as we laugh when some brand Theresa May a ‘new Thatcher’, as if General De Gaulle could in any way be compared to his most recent successors. The French are also shocked by the situation in Calais and along the Channel as well as by London’s refusal to share the burden, humanely as well as financially.
And, for the two years to come – and perhaps even more – we’ll certainly curse them for the uncertainties created by their decision, by the protracted divorce proceedings we never wanted, as well as by their economic and financial costs for us. A divorce is always a sorry moment which tests evenly both sides, but the unwilling – us – first.
But we also spare a thought for our fellow countrymen who, like all other EU citizens – as here we are citizens and not subjects! – run the risk of losing their jobs, or their rights of residence, all thanks to a faceless immigration system. And we pity as well those Brits who decided years ago to settle down in France or elsewhere in Europe and are being used as negotiating pawns by Brexiters. Yes, they remain welcome here, for us it is not a question. It is just a fact, and we appreciate the choice they made to live among us. We have never thought to use them as bargaining chips. We’ll pity them even more if their pensions fall with a dwindling pound or if they lose their health coverage, as it is not our responsibility but that of their own government, which is letting them down. We are used to laughing at our politicians, but also now at yours when they threaten not to buy our champagne any more, just as we laugh when some brand Theresa May a ‘new Thatcher’…
Sure – Brexit will affect us, not only sentimentally but also somehow economically. We were happy to have among us a difficult, quaint but old neighbour. We’ll now be separated by a natural ditch and by the realities of politics after a – we believe – wrong vote for which politicians are to be blamed first and foremost. But for now let’s return to our election campaign…