"Let's play French" - in a toy store in Lyon, France. Demotix/Serge Mouraret. All rights reserved.
Europe, an adjustment variable for the French political class
France, and more specifically France’s political elite, have always had a paradoxical attitude towards the EU: although there is only 300 kilometers between Brussels and Paris (and although Strasbourg is a French city), “Brussels” is always presented as a remote universe. In spite of France's historical role in building the EU, Europe is still considered a foreign policy topic to which we give little importance: the fact that ten different Ministers of EU Affairs have succeeded each other in the past ten years speaks for itself.
Recently, in the French Huffington Post, Justus Lipsius, a group of French expats working in EU affairs (not exactly a left wing cabal), wrote an interesting piece entitled “French influence in Europe: the political parties' irresponsibility” which starts thus:
It is hardly a secret in Brussels, and a topic that no one in Paris is interested in: France does not stand out for its influence in the European Parliament. How could it be different? For the political parties, on the whole political spectrum, priority is not given to influence but to internal equilibrium, connections, favours, accommodating “key personalities”… Europe, for many of our decision-makers, is an adjustment variable of the national electoral agenda, a kind of unemployment scheme.
The upcoming European elections perfectly illustrate this observation. Rare articles on the subject seem to be mostly concerned with internal divisions over nominating the leading candidates in all parties: the Greens (“European elections: the Bové case, symbol of the tensions at EELV"), the Right Party ("UMP torn into pieces over the European elections"), the Socialist Party (“The PS: stuck in the 'all-French' trap”)… The parties' difficulties are also due to the upcoming municipal elections, to be held in March. The Front de Gauche (“Left Front”), which emerged as an electoral coalition of the Communist Party and the Left Party for the 2009 European elections, virtually doesn’t exist anymore. The centre parties (UDI, MoDem), which are traditionally pro-European, have been weakened in recent years and the fate of their latest attempt at joining forces remains to be determined. As for the Pirate Party, it is far from being as strong in France as it is in other EU countries.
Clearly, the priority of political parties when defining their lists for the European elections is not influence in Europe, as the members of the Justus Lipsius group regretted, but political influence in France. In this respect, a MEP seat is a comfortable Plan B for those politicians whose national career is going through a rough patch or for those whose presence at the national level is not exactly welcome.
Playing the (far) right cards
There is one party that we wouldn’t describe as lost in the turmoil of internal divisions. One party that shows a surprisingly united facade. One party that is collaborating with its European counterparts to promote their vision of a “deconstructed EU”. One party that is linking important national issues with the European context and agenda. A party, to cut a long story short, whose president brags about the fact that it will be “the first political party in France after the European elections” (and that for the first time in its history). Yes, the Eurosceptic, xenophobic and nationalistic Front National is the party investing the most energy in preparing for the European elections.
According to the latest polls available, the Front National would get 24 percent of the votes, followed by the UMP (affiliated to the European People's Party) with 22 percent and the PS (affiliated to the Social Democrats) with 19 percent. The MoDem would be fourth with 11 percent of the votes, the Front de Gauche fifth with 10 percent and the Greens sixth with 6 percent.
Marine Le Pen, the president of the Front National, and currently an MEP who sits in Strasbourg only when there is nothing more interesting to do elsewhere (which is to say rarely), employing her partner as parliamentary assistant, has shown her political skills in using the national social, economic and political context. Answering widespread discontent with the policy of the current government and the resentment of those who feel marginalised by the current socio-economic crisis, as pointed out by Les Echos: “she has promised to fight several battles in 2014. The first one is that against the European Union, her scapegoat more than ever. The 'root of France’s problems' according to her”.
Nature abhors a vacuum and Le Pen is filling the void of this empty electoral campaign with traditional far right themes (immigration, security, globalisation…) which, given the lack of interest of democratic parties in the European elections, are likely to stay at the heart of the (non-)debate.
In this context, talking about the topics that will be debated ahead of the elections is almost absurd. As mentioned, far right favourites building upon popular disenchantment will most probably be at the centre of the debate. Populists from all over the political spectrum will play the usual game of EU bashing. It seems quite unlikely this will leave much space to discuss the future of Europe - a constructive and realistic debate on the kind of Europe we want to build and live in.
Other topics which are high on the European agenda, such as internet surveillance, data privacy, social protection, economic governance or financial regulation, have received some coverage in France in recent months, but they have so far only been discussed by an already interested and informed minority. Yet, and paradoxically, those technical topics (particularly financial regulation or internet surveillance) may receive some coverage in the framework of the campaign. Financial regulation can indeed both be used by pro-Europeans to call for more Europe, and by Eurosceptics to denounce the effects of austerity and the EU's neo-liberal policies.
But the fact is that European elections are still seen as second-class elections, and national, not European, politics will have the biggest influence on the election campaign. French democratic parties are visibly on the defensive; they don't seem interested in putting forwards ideas, proposals and debate about Europe, which leaves space for the aggressive populist strategy deployed by the far right. In 2009, to everyone’s surprise, the Greens won 16 seats (16,28 percent of the votes). They were the only party that was actually talking about Europe (even adding it to their name – "Europe Ecologie – Les Verts"), bringing a much needed European perspective to the campaign. It brought them a significant amount of votes. Yet, this year, the Greens aim at “maintaining” 6 seats and seem to be fighting a losing battle.
The battle won’t – only – be lost because the Front National gathers the larger amount of votes expressed. It will also be lost because the new Members of the European Parliament will be elected by (far) less than half of the electoral body, probably by even less people than in 2009 (the turnout then was 40 per cent). And here the responsibility falls to democratic parties, which do not take Europe seriously enough to be willing and able to bring politics back to the daily functioning of the EU. They need to offer different visions for Europe, and stir a long overdue debate on the orientations the EU should take.
But in France at least, this is unlikely to happen in the run-up to the elections.