28 April 2017
Frexit: An Inevitable Outcome?
Coverage of the French presidential election has recently been plastered across international media. With the rise of populist and nationalistic candidates worldwide, and an increase in EU skepticism, it’s not shocking that the idea of a “French-Exit”, or the potential election of a right-wing candidate would be something many people are either concerned or excited about. Marine Le Pen has long been the contemporary face of this “separatist” movement of politics in France, where she is currently running for the office of President. Despite the current worldwide shift to right wing and nationalistic voting tendencies, France’s firm entrenchment in socialist policies, and its cornerstone status in the EU could potentially prevent such an event from ever taking place on French soil. It would seem that a FREXIT will likely occur in the future, although for far different reasons than BREXIT, and Marine le Pen will not likely be its figurehead.
Who would a FREXIT even benefit? Wouldn’t the absence of France in the EU lead to destabilization and perhaps even total collapse of the EU and European Community? These are important questions which are currently being debated all over the world, especially in France. FREXIT’s biggest proponents tend follow a few specific theories, which we must acknowledge to fully understand the situation. Le Pen’s supporters, and thus those who would equally support a break from the EU, cite many issues with the current EU system. Some of the complaints are universal across the continent, and others are very specifically French.
The bulk of Le Pen’s supporters come from rural or agricultural areas of France, as well as its mid and smaller sized industrial towns. Victims of the recent decades of business and factory closures and recession, many outside the large cities suffer from unemployment, and deal with piles of bills that they simply can no longer afford to pay. Economically challenged, these disenfranchised workers see immigration and EU overreach as a threat, as the market for French labor would become even more slim, should it be flooded by migrant workers, among other concerns.
The support for Le Pen doesn’t stop at the middle class, however. Criticism of the European Union has been collectively mounting for quite some time, and it’s difficult to find someone from either side of the aisle who doesn’t have at least one unkind word towards its overly bureaucratic leadership style. Many French, even if they disagree with Le Pen’s particular style or sentiment, view the EU as a detached and overbearing entity, which produces ineffectual rulings which may not be in the best interest of the nations under its administration. Additionally, the recent refugee crisis has further spurred EU criticism. The Schengen visa-free travel system is one of the most visible signs of European unity, and appears to have exacerbated the refugee issue by robbing nations of their right to control border crossings in a way of their choosing. Analysts expect the refugee crisis to worsen as the year drags on, and it will potentially continue to spiral out of control, should reforms not be made. This lack of sovereignty essentially caps off the issue for many French voters. More than anything else, the recurring theme of the Le Pen and FREXIT supporter is that they want France to have total control of its own future, for better or for worse.
The obvious comparison when discussing a French EU exit, is the recent successful BREXIT referendum. BREXIT proves, if nothing else, that the vote can at least be successfully cast, though the future and actual application of BREXIT is still to be determined. The British decision comes under much fire from its European neighbors, including perhaps most importantly, Le Pen’s current political adversary, Emmanuel Macron, who promises to “punish” the UK, should they fully leave the EU. BREXIT may essentially pave the theoretical way for a similar French movement to take place, but there are some primary differences between the makeup of French and British voters which must first be assessed.
Britain has historically been quite a separate entity from the rest of Europe. Whether because of its actual geographic separation from continental Europe, or perhaps its language and cultural differences, Britain has consistently been a unique player when comparing it to the rest of its neighbors. The United Kingdom’s unique characteristics have always been apparent in its involvement with the EU, as they refused to participate in the European Monetary Exchange System, (the Euro), as well as the Schengen travel system. While the denial of these systems have arguably put the UK at a disadvantaged position when interacting with its neighbors by hindering the social and economic practices of a common market and European identity, they have also provided the UK with certain levels of undeniable sovereignty that other EU nations might not have. This increased period of sovereignty, along with other historical and cultural differences could likely be a major societal factor which shifted the final few percent of the vote towards the eventual “LEAVE” decision.
Those who wish for a FREXIT or a Le Pen presidency seem to vote for different reasons altogether. The French have always been a crucial part of mainland Europe, immediately separating them culturally from the occupants of the British Isles. The French also seem, even on the “right wing”, to appreciate the currently exaggerated welfare system that their own government provides. Where for example, in the case of the British LEAVE voter, the “shackles of the EU” allegedly prevented their ability to grow and make sovereign decisions for advancement, the French voter fears that the EU will prevent further socialist policies. Increased amounts of immigrants, receiving full benefits under the French system due to the current laws in place, theoretically drains the pool of benefits for everyone else, concerning many native-born citizens. France’s extremely high tax rates, (averaging 71.3% of gross income in 2005), guaranteed those benefits previously, but a massive and unexpected drain on the system could potentially compromise them. Additionally, re-nationalization of businesses, while not explicitly banned by the EU, is made far more difficult through the EU’s regulations. While nationalization is a foreign concept for many American’s, it’s a very important topic for those familiar with more highly socialist systems, such as the voters in France, who have proven to be uncompetitive against the world market. This lack of competitive ability, and in many cases a lack of desire to be competitive, (something remedied by the failure of the business in normal markets), is instead being viewed as a nuisance which can be ignored and dealt with by further government spending and bailouts. Sovereignty is still the goal for many of these voters, but they desire sovereignty in a stereotypically-French manner.
These French voters also bring up the interesting comparison between what is considered “right wing” in French politics especially as compared with the same connotation in the United States. The primary commonly shared views between contemporary right wing US and French voters revolve around immigration, nationalism, and the reclamation of sovereignty in opposition of globalist policies. All other views tend to stratify wildly from there. For one quick example of this stratification, main stream right wing American voters are typically aligned against LGBT rights, whereas the National Front party and Le Pen have adopted very pro-LGBT policies and stances, as French society is traditionally socially liberal. While US conservatives often cling to fundamentalist Christian views regarding social subjects, the French take a more middle of the road approach. Even in their critiques of radical Islam, they often choose to support a stance that equally shuns all religions in the public sector, in favor of a more private view of spiritualism. This view, however, transcends both left and rightwing politics in France, and has been reflected in the law since as early as 2004, when the wearing of conspicuous religious devices was prohibited in public schools. Proposed policies from the Le Pen campaign take these laws a step further however, as she views Islam, at least in its fundamentalist form, as a threat to the French way of life, which is debatably correct if you subscribe to the idea of French culture as generally progressive and socially liberal in comparison with the core tenets of Sharia law.
Additional differences between French and American right wing voters primarily revolve around fiscal policy. As mentioned before, the French are generally far more supportive of the welfare state, something which would put them in stark opposition with their American counterparts. The French support of the welfare state is one of the fundamental reasons that they oppose the EU in the first place, (at least on the right), and the renationalization of businesses, as well as the expulsion of immigrants to maintain their elevated level of benefits serves as a rallying cry for “right wing” policies. This is a very interesting point to make, as it appears to strike to the core of differences between French voters and those of other nations. While French right wingers may appear radical to those within France, if you pulled them out of place and put them in the US, they would appear to be firmly entrenched on the opposite side of the political spectrum. This is an issue that is often completely overlooked by foreign supporters of the Le Pen agenda, who often rely on a very shallow understanding of the French political spectrum.
Why is Le Pen such a long shot? Le Pen, while currently enjoying very competitive election results compared to Macron, (potentially due to change in the coming weeks), has become something of an old trick in French society. While having only been leader of the party since 2011, (until her recent relinquishing of the position), populist candidates tend to suffer from a very short shelf-life, which Le Pen is likely fast approaching. The ideologies that she embodies have been core tenets of the National Front agenda nearly since its creation in 1972, and thus are no longer “fresh” to the French public. Additionally, many remember her father, holocaust denier and anti-Semite Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded and led the National Front until as recently as 2011 when Marine took control. While Marine Le Pen has made many efforts to separate herself and her party from her father’s views, even long before she officially took party control, memories tend to run long, and it’s very possible that Jean-Marie’s radical views have forever tarnished the name of the party, and simultaneously the Le Pen name. Interestingly enough, that separation caused much tension between her and her father, which theoretically would do even more to separate their images, but potential poor performance in the upcoming runoff election might prove otherwise. While Marine’s platform is one that is currently very popular, it’s likely that the French public would be far more welcoming of a fresh candidate who is relatively unblemished, in order to carry on the same proverbial banner without any of the accompanying baggage.
The National Front suffers from a few other blows as well. While they have recently gained wins in regional elections, they are still far from being a dominant mainstream party in the French political circuit. This lack of overall control essentially presents an even higher hill for Marine to overcome on her way to the Presidential office. National Front supporters fall into an analogous situation to many Donald Trump voters in the recent US Presidential Election. Due to the fear of being ridiculed over their choice to support an unpopular candidate, they are often not forthcoming with their political opinion. This seems to be a recurring trend when voters choose to support a candidate who is viewed as an “extremist”, and thus makes obtaining realistic polling results an arduous task at best. It’s very possible that we might also see a similar “silent majority” appear during the runoff elections, although the significance of such a movement could be nearly as debatable as the US election results.
A further potential blow to Le Pen’s success could be the current standstill of the Global War on Terror. While the conflict obviously continues to rage on, its traditional battlegrounds have begun to receive less media attention in comparison to those in Syria and other locales. The French are relatively uninvolved in these new regions, which has the potential to lessen the perceived importance of Le Pen’s anti-Islamic stance. Lack of overt French military involvement allows the average voter to push the issue out of their minds, and lowers the collective feeling of sacrifice that politicians often utilize to their advantage. Much of Le Pen’s support is rooted in fear, whether that be fear of lost benefits or fear of a foreign entity destroying the traditional French way of life. If you remove or lessen the effects of one of those fears, (by reducing the importance of the GWOT), you logically end up with a corresponding decrease in support for Le Pen’s more radical anti-immigrant/Islamic policies. Attacks on the French homeland are still occurring, but when poll results are concerned, memories are rather short, and (luckily) the most recent attacks on French soil have been rather small in comparison to those that came before. This lapse in time creates a sense of security amongst the average French voter, which decreases their desire to support a candidate that has been deemed a right-wing extremist. Similar trends could be viewed in the history of the United States, as the “rally round the flag effect” pushed typically moderate voters to support war-hawkish policies, and limit criticism of previously contested movements, immediately following the attacks of September 11th, 2001. These temporary right wing voting tendencies typically subside once more time has passed after the initial rallying incident.
How would France overcome these obstacles and support FREXIT? While the case against FREXIT and a Le Pen presidency is compelling, there are a handful of ways for it to succeed. More than anything, BREXIT must go off without a hitch. Currently, BREXIT is still a hotly debated topic within the European community. If BREXIT should fail, for whatever reason, it would work towards proving the popular opinion that it was a poorly planned, kneejerk movement. On the other hand, a successful BREXIT would fuel the idea that it’s possible for other nations to go the same way. While a successful BREXIT would set the proverbial stage for France to follow suit, it won’t occur without a strong and driven leader of the same mindset. While Le Pen could potentially be that leader, (and well might be, results pending), it would seem unlikely based on existing evidence that she will currently win. Thus, a new candidate must emerge to fill her place. This candidate would theoretically maintain many of the same ideologies as Le Pen, but would ideally not fall prey to the same pitfalls, such as the blemished and anti-Semitic past of the National Front and Le Pen family name. Given the current rash of Euroscepticism that currently exists within France, as well as the rejection of traditional mainstream French political parties, a successful candidate could potentially come from either side of the political spectrum. Unifying French voters under an anti-EU, pro-French sovereignty banner, without Le Pen’s baggage, would potentially provide for staggering election results within the next several years.
Alternatively, if Macron takes the wheel, drastic failures on his behalf could also further fuel the pro-sovereignty voters. Macron is already considered to be a run of the mill political elite, (rightly or wrongly), and by winning the election and then leading the country into further economic trouble, the general malaise that many French voters are currently experiencing would only intensify, further eroding faith in the existing political norms. A further blow would be provided by more ISIS claimed terror attacks on French soil, should they occur under a Macron presidency. Further attacks could be blamed on Macron’s lack of immigration reform, pitting the French public even further in favor of a major political overhaul, (enter outsider candidates).
The FREXIT movement could be squashed just as easily as it could be maintained, however, should the opposite outcomes occur. For example, should the Global War on Terror eventually end, nationalist candidates would be robbed of another rallying mechanism. Should no further terror attacks occur on French soil, the “attitudes of complacency” would theoretically drive voters away from seemingly extremist candidates and policies, as there would no longer be a national sense of urgency to fight against the vestiges of radical Islamic ideology. Additionally, the resolution of the conflict would in theory reduce the refugee and migrant burden on the European nations, as the refugees currently in place would be able to return to their countries of origin. The reduction or total resolve of the current refugee crisis would throw another stumbling block on the path towards FREXIT.
Oddly enough, nationalism might also be the answer to preserving the EU. In the place of the current candidates, a “moderate nationalist” would seem to have massive support. If a candidate could use France’s strong contributions to the EU as a bargaining chip for pro-France policies, while simultaneously vowing to maintain the solidarity of the Union, they might stand a very good chance of crossing the aisle and uniting many voters. Alternatively, the same result could come from massive EU reforms. Should the collective EU administrators realize that further referendums are likely, you might see many of the issues that voters have being addressed. Massive reforms are unlikely, however, due to the extreme dependence that some European nations have on the currently existing system. Greece, for example, likely wouldn’t support reforms which put it even further into debt, or alternatively limit aid that it could receive. EU reforms would likely necessitate removing some of the non-contributing nations from the Union, and thus will not likely occur.
As we’ve seen so far, evidence shows that FREXIT, while unlikely, is still a very possible outcome. While it won’t likely occur within this presidential cycle, the turning tides of international voting trends seem to point towards a resurgence of nationalist and populist policies. The Le Pen name would appear to be too tarnished by her father to make many more advancements in the current French political sphere, but a new face, more terrorist attacks, a successful BREXIT or any other number of factors could all swing French favor towards abandoning the EU all together.
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