Europe — taboo subject for François Hollande

Ever since his election, François Hollande has hardly mentioned Europe. Embarrassed by left-wing bickering over the ratification of the fiscal compact, France’s new president also knows that voters tend to turn against the EU in times of crisis. A Le Monde columnist warns that he will nevertheless have to consult the French people on the subject one day.

Published on 17 September 2012 at 15:22
François Hollande: ”It doesn't look all that hard." / "Wait, I haven't turned it on!"

Always think of it, never talk of it. In France, Europe, like Alsace-Lorraine between 1870 and 1918, has become a taboo subject that cannot be mentioned to the French population. Not surprisingly then, in his September 9 interview on the TF1 television channel, François Hollande was careful to avoid any discussion of Europe when he presented his “agenda for recovery” by 2014, in which is supposed to map out the way ahead for the first half of his five-year mandate.

This silence notwithstanding, the European agenda is nonetheless dictating the actions of the French president. The euro is still in trouble, and so too is France. If the crisis worsens, the country could, like Italy, find itself under attack on financial markets. But even if the crisis abates, it could still suffer the same fate as Italy, when the markets discover that France is no healthier than its southern neighbour, which is still Europe’s second industrial power.

If the president is dodging the subject of Europe, it is because Europe has been unable to establish a political outlook. This is in marked contrast to the previous socialist president François Mitterrand, who after two years of economic false starts chose austerity in 1983. Europe rather than socialism: François Mitterrand established a policy with a dual outlook, both French and European. With the intention, according to the Treaty of Rome, to forge "an ever closer union between European peoples", Europe was a utopia, but a utopia with concrete consequences that would enable France to modernise.

Schröder-like touches

It was on this basis that in 1986, the Single European Act established the horizon of a single market by 1992. After this, the Maastricht Treaty paved the way for the euro, which was to be created at the earliest by 1997, and no later than 1999, and forced candidate countries to comply with economic convergence criteria.

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This countdown method, which also helped organise enlargement to Eastern European countries in 2004, is obsolete. Europe has been decimated by its failures and by its legitimacy crisis, enacted in 2005 by the French and Dutch double “no” to the European Constitution. The euro crisis, which attests to what is at the very least Europe’s provisional incapacity to protect its peoples and ensure their prosperity, has only served to confirm their distrust.

A parrying manoeuvre for François Hollande could be to seek inspiration from the most recent attempt to establish a European utopia, the so-called Lisbon Agenda. Launched in 2000 at the height of the Internet boom, the agenda aimed to transform Europe into "the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world" by 2010. The goal was to overtake the American superpower. However, no binding constraints were set for the agenda, and it fell apart. The only notable exception was in Germany where, in 2002, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder decided to nationalise Lisbon’s aspirations when he launched Germany’s own 2010 agenda, without Europe. Its success is common knowledge.

Can François Hollande follow the same path? His intervention on TF1 had a lot of Schröder-like touches. However, the German chancellor set his sights on a long-term objective that was the subject of a national consensus: to restore German competitiveness and make the country an industrial exports champion. François Hollande is not in this situation. He has no legitimate long-term project, which is why his argument is weak.

The French president has therefore presented his agenda for reform as a two-year hiatus, an ordeal that will result in “greater social solidarity”. However, nothing was said about France’s future in Europe and the global economy. In the crisis, most of the countries in difficulty either willingly or unwillingly adopt the German model for reform. And this is the choice that has been made for France.

Politics of the unsaid

This is the analysis put forward by former French prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin. “A time will come when the French people will be asked to choose between the Pyrenees and the Rhine, to be like the Germans or the Spanish,” remarked the UMP senator for Vienne. Back in January, alignment with Germany temporarily became the main theme of Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidential campaign. Having ridiculed what he termed Berlin’s sacrificial policy, he then made it the model to be followed. The argument, however, was quickly jettisoned due to its mixed impact on voters. It remains an even more difficult sales pitch for a left-wing president.

In this context, François Hollande is engaged in a politics of the unsaid, in both national and European terms. On the European side, the president is hoping the union will clear the obstacle course it faces, with its litany of bailouts, elections and constitutional rulings, so that investors will finally return to Southern Europe. He is hoping that this European respite will enable him to recover a little national room for manoeuvre in which to successfully implement his two-year agenda.

Only then will Europe become a defensible horizon: when it has proved its effectiveness by overcoming the crisis. Then it will be time to reflect on renewed legitimation of the European project by Europe’s populations. The French are terrified that the experience of the European referenda will be repeated. But the question will inevitably have to be put to the people again, when the rules have changed to the point where the German authorities have no other choice but to consult their country’s population.

Public opinion

France has fallen out of love with Europe

According toa poll published by Le Figaro, 64% of the French electorate would today vote against the Maastricht Treaty. The Paris daily comments on the French people’s “disenchantment” with Europe, terming the poll a “cautionary statement” —

Who is to blame? The leaders, both right and left. And what do they say? Firstly, that Europe goes without saying, and those who aren’t convinced are simpletons who should be forced to accept it willingly or unwillingly. Next, that to be part of a community with a common destiny and common interests, France is obliged to make efforts that could be avoided were it not for Europe. A fatal mistake. Presented like this, Europe can only be a repoussoir, and that is exactly what it has become.

Nonetheless, notes Le Figaro

The French do not mind being paradoxical, and they have not thrown everything overboard. They are still in favour of the principle of a European political union: 47% (as opposed to 27% against) believe that it is in the country’s interest to continue its association with the European political grouping. [...] The French therefore do not want to backpedal, but are even less open to acceleration or enlargement.

The conservative daily calls on the French people to reflect on their European destiny rather than calling Europe into question —

[They] should not delude themselves, and would do well to reflect on the nature of their europhobia, which holds a mirror up to them.

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