Europe’s necessary return to France

This 9th of May we were celebrating, in a very peculiar context, the 70th anniversary of the ‘Schuman Declaration’, the founding act of European integration launched by France. Although the Covid-19 crisis has eclipsed this anniversary, it nevertheless raises a pertinent issue of the complex and paradoxical relationship that the French seem to have with Europe.

Acting alternatively as the ‘engine’ and ‘brake’ of the European construction, France is both at the origin of its greatest advances and its most notable ‘stops’, including, 15 years ago, the rejection in France of the ‘European Constitution’. Since then, and after 10 years of crises, French distrust in the EU seems to have grown even more, despite the willingness of the French authorities, notably President Macron, to carry an ambitious strategic vision of the future of the EU.

Today, France appears to be one of the EU member states whose population is the most critical of many dimensions of the European Union construction. The French are those who consider themselves to be the most ill-informed on European issues, but also that the EU is undemocratic or who express strong mistrust of it. On all these dimensions, it is in France, among the 27 post-Brexit EU countries, that we find the highest negative judgements. Confidence in the European Union, which had tentatively improved in the spring of 2017 when the election of Emmanuel Macron was supposed to mark «France’s return to Europe», has since dropped to 32% confidence in the autumn of 2019: 11 points below the EU28 average and 17 points below Germany.

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However, it would be overly simplistic and improper to describe France as a ‘Eurosceptic’ country based on these observations. A majority of French people (58% versus 30%) do not question their country’s membership of the EU. France is not one of the 10 countries in which more than a third of the population considers that their country would better face the future outside the EU. A report published by the Jacques Delors Institute, Cevipof (Sciences Po) and Kantar sheds light on this French ambivalence. It lies in the distinction between diffuse support, built on the key principles and values on which the EU was built, and specific support, related to concrete achievements. In France, support for the EU is highest at the most diffuse level, while 57% of French people are believing that the EU is distant and 65% that it is not effective.

This remoteness, this incomprehension and the ambivalence that results from it can be explained by cultural and historical French characteristics. First, a unitary political culture out of step with the European culture of compromise. Secondly, a socio-economic culture marked by a certain mistrust or even hostility to liberalism, reluctant to accept that economic choices still under debate in France appear to be definitively settled by the treaties. Thirdly, a logic of national projection disappointed by not finding in the Union this larger version of France initially dreamed of, not by the founding fathers, but by numerous French leaders.

[Escuche el ‘podcast’ de Agenda Pública: ¿Se lo dejamos a los expertos?]

Consequently, the Coronavirus crisis that is hitting Europe can only be a crucial and decisive moment for the future of the European project and its appropriation by the French. Seductive in its principles and disappointing in its achievements, the EU must at this occasion demonstrate its ability to act. The global outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic and the destructive impact on incomes and jobs in Europe call, in people’s expectations, for a united and coordinated European response. Such a response was already expected during the sovereign debt crisis and during the migrant crisis. In both cases the EU disappointed. In most European citizens eyes, its reputation has recovered, but not everywhere and especially not in France. Can the EU afford to disappoint a third time? Probably not.

Furthermore, if this health crisis is seen as a kind of pre-test, in terms of challenging our prevention, reaction, adaptation and cooperation capacities, of the climate crisis on which Europe is so eagerly awaited. The poor level of information on European issues among French citizens often deprives the EU of the means to publicise its action. Since we are currently facing a health crisis that is focusing attention at an unprecedented level, this ordeal perhaps offers an opportunity. Presumably, this time, what the European Union can deliver will be revealed. Faced with this hypothesis, one thing is certain: what it fails to deliver will be even more revealing. The year 2020 must be the year of Europe’s return to France, but a return that is built with the citizens.

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