The Eiffel tower in 2008. Flickr/Yann Caradec. Some rights reserved.
Are European elections really European? They are certainly democratic elections, at least as democratic as the countries where they are held - they are more democratic, say, in France than in Hungary. But are they really European? Formally yes, as they take place the very same day in all EU member states. But this aspect seems almost gimmicky when Euro-election campaigns are often, if not always, conducted on domestic issues.
We have long been used to Euro-bashing, and Euro-pessimism by politicians who blame Brussels for decisions they have themselves voted in, or not opposed, thus nurturing this anti-European feeling that has been creeping all over the EU. This trend too predates the present crisis. Recently, German-bashing has also become the flavour of the day, especially in the countries most hit by the crisis, who are going through severe streamlining policies imposed by Brussels on the request of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
In France – as in many other EU countries – voters usually use Euro elections to vent their anger and frustration against their own national governments, fully aware that voting for parties who don't stand a chance of leading the country won't have serious consequences at home. This gives small and extremist parties – left and right – a chance to procure more media exposure and a few MEPs. This is the case for the French Front National (FN) and the Front de Gauche led by far left firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon, or UKIP in Britain.
Similarly, French ministers for European affairs, left or right, are often unknown figures, far down in the cabinet protocol. Trying to break the pattern, President François Hollande initially appointed a serious candidate for this portfolio, Bernard Cazeneuve. But, when budget minister Jérôme Cahuzac was forced to resign last year for having stashed his money in a Swiss bank, he was replaced by Cazeneuve. His replacement at the ministry for European affairs, former deputy minister for job training Thierry Repentin, remains largely unknown in and outside of France. And Repentin is hardly the right guy to make the 74 per cent of French voters change their mind (compare with 58 percent in 1999) who, according to an IFOP poll from December, will cast a distrust ballot against Europe next May ; only 24 per cent of them wanted to express their support for the EU. The less affluent classes are the most Euro-sceptic (82 percent). The most pro-European are Socialist (42 percent) and Green (40 percent) party members.
The lack of importance French politicians give to European elections is clear. Euro elections only count as a means to evaluate each party's strength in the opinion polls: we are xx points ahead of you etc. Only second fiddles, candidates defeated in parliamentary elections or victims of political reshuffles are being offered a golden exile in Brussels. Usually, they then spend most of their time in Paris lobbying for a comeback. And if lists are often led by national politicians, it is obvious to everyone that they have no intention of wasting their time in Brussels - and that they will resign at once after being elected, leaving their seats to the next, barely known, person on the list. Regularly, MEPs who have a long experience of the European institutions are asked to give way, not always courteously. Skills are simply not the main criteria.
From right to left, this is what the Euro elections campaign looks like at the moment in France:
1) The election will allow the FN's leader, Marine Le Pen, to secure the public mandate she has so far been refused by voters in national elections; just like her father Jean-Marie, who's been an MEP since 1984. The FN is a populist, rabidly anti-European, anti-EU and anti-Euro movement. And it could well benefit from the mess within the right and the general dissatisfaction with politics and politicians to reach an all time high as a populist, "anti-system" party. An October opinion poll by IFOP put them at up to 24 per cent, ahead of the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP, conservative) with 21 per cent, 19 per cent for the Parti Socialiste (PS), 11 per cent for the Centre, 10 per cent for Jean-Luc Mélenchon's Front de Gauche and 6 per cent for the Greens. And, according to another poll, this time on next March's municipal elections, around 40 per cent of voters polled admitted considering voting for the FN.
2) Former president Nicolas Sarkozy's UMP, torn apart by rivalries between his potential successors, has not yet been able to come up with a full list of candidates, a platform, or indeed a credible leader for the list. The obvious choice, outgoing EU commissioner and former Foreign Minister, Michel Barnier, is now increasingly questioned, if not opposed by the Eurosceptic clique who consider him "too European". For the time being, he only leads the Paris list. The party's general secretary (and France's least popular politician, with less than 5 per cent of favourable opinions in polls), Jean-François Copé, is fighting hard to block candidates close to his rival, former prime minister François Fillon, rather than looking for young and bright new faces to represent the French right in Brussels. The mess within the UMP has had a demobilizing effect on conservative voters, making the party unable to benefit from widespread rejection of Hollande's government's policies.
3) The Centrists have consistently been the most pro-European force in the French political spectrum. Now officially reunified under a two-headed leadership – Jean-Louis Borloo, chief of the Nouveau Centre, a former minister in Sarkozy's government, and François Bayrou, chief of MODEM (Mouvement démocrate) who has long tried, but failed, to pursue a viable middle road – the Union des Démocrates et des Indépendants (UDI) hopes to bank on true European credentials and newfound unity to get a good score. But, at the same time, they will support the UMP in the municipal elections. Historically, the French centre has never been able to retain an independent posture and has almost always sided with the right.
4) The ruling PS has just recently released its eight different regional lists, avoiding internal controversies but also devoid of well-known political figures – who are apparently not interested in the intricacies of European policy. The Socialists will certainly pay a price – possibly heavy – for being in power at a time when the social and economic situation is bad, unemployment is rampant and the nation's morale remains at an all time low. Incumbent governments usually lose at European elections – UMP did in 2009. And François Hollande remains the most unpopular president of the Fifth Republic. In the end, the Socialists can only hope to minimize their losses.
5) Despite being a partner in the present government coalition, Europe Ecologie – Les Verts (EELV) will go on their own this time, with little chance of reaching their historic 2009 score (16.3 percent) - they were then led by Dany (The Red) Cohn-Bendit, who has since left the movement. The Greens' image has been damaged by internal party rivalries and bickering - they are now seen as a party like the others. Opinion polls credit them with less than half of their 2009 score.
6) The Front de Gauche has lost some of its clout as president Hollande's official opposition from the left. Co-founded by Mélenchon's own Parti de Gauche (PG), who has some popular support but few elected representatives, and the Parti communiste (PCF), who has elected representatives but waning popular support, it is now victim of the feud between the Communist leader Pierre Laurent and Mélenchon. The latter has threatened to part ways after Laurent struck a deal for joint lists with the Socialists for the March municipal elections in Paris – this deal was the PCF's only chance of retaining the city councils it still controls as well as seats in socialist-controlled cities councils. Mélenchon now says the PG will present its own lists for the municipal elections, but with slim chance of success, except if they strike an agreement with the PS for the second round. But it seems now clear that, for Mélenchon - the "other" anti-system populist - the prime target has become the Hollande government rather than the right.
Where is Europe?
There is not much Europe in all this. Political tactics have taken the upper hand in European strategising. Populist politicians – but not only them – know very well how to play on the usual bogeyman, the EU, to redirect voters' anger – this works in France and elsewhere, as we can see in the case of the British Prime Minister, David Cameron. At a time when the French as a whole fear for their future and that of their children, using the Euro-bashing card to distract attention from a dire domestic situation and the decay of political leadership as a whole is an easy way out. Threats from the outside always distract attention from unfulfilled unrealistic promises.
And it often pays - especially when it is fanned by populists and relayed by media who are always ready to overinflate everything that goes wrong in Brussels. We cannot underrate the role of news channels who have to stir up attention from voters every quarter or half an hour with new developments – in order to raise audience and advertising income – by hammering news often blown up out of all proportion.
Yet, those same French, always ready to lament their nation's decline, and the damage caused by globalisation in their country, are surprisingly more optimistic when questioned about their personal future. If a BVA-Gallup 2011 poll showed them as the most pessimist country in the world (behind Afghanistan, Iraq or Greece), other polls have shown a reverse trend when asked about their own fate, including for seniors. Last year, a CSA poll showed that if only 31 percent of us were optimistic about our country, nevertheless 53 per cent were willing to say that we were happy with our personal situation.
One last point. We French, starting with our leaders, whoever they are, with the exception of a tiny minority with actual European experience – like François Bayrou or MEP Sylvie Goulard – tend to see Europe as we would like it to be, and not as it is. At the same time, we lambast the lack of democracy within a EU which, we say, has failed to develop much needed social policies to fight against the crisis and is now destroying “innocent” countries like Greece.
But we refuse to see that, if there was real democracy at the European level, a one man one vote system would be imposed on the 28 members of the Union, and the conservative, economically ultra-liberal public opinions in most others EU countries could well force us to abandon most of the welfare state we so much cherish. In short, we want more Europe, French style, and we don't understand that our views are not shared by most of our European partners. We might have a borderless Union but, with the present crisis, the Europe of the mind seems to be receding year in year out. New European elections won't be able to revert that trend.