There is little public debate in France about Brexit. Of course, when Michel Barnier opens a new round of negotiations with David Davis in Brussels, articles appear in the media. But generally, French society and even mainstream politicians are not terribly interested. Many people in France believe Brexit has to happen because it will solve a problem: British governments, whether Labour or Conservative, have never really embraced political integration. It is common to hear ordinary French citizens saying: ‘Well, the UK has never liked Europe and it will be easier in Brussels when it leaves!’ Christian Lequesne (Sciences Po) explains the French perspective on Brexit.
French society and Brexit
For experts, it is not easy to convince the broader public that there have been major British contributions to the EU since 1973. However, those areas where the UK’s influence has arguably been greatest – its contribution to the establishment of the single market and to the enlargement of the EU toward Central and Eastern Europe – are not considered unequivocally positive in France. The French often perceive these as neoliberal policies that challenged the ‘right model’ of a political Europe.
The fate of the 300,000 French citizens living and working in London has not much mobilised French public opinion. One not unpopular view is that London-based expats decided to cross the Channel in order to avoid paying their taxes in France. Of course, such a view does not correspond to reality: it neglects the fact that a large number of young French people work in all sorts of jobs in the UK because they had no job in their home country. When French expats decide to return to France, articles immediately appear in the newspapers stressing that they feel ‘better at home’ on account of Brexit.
At the moment, the most vocal opponents of Brexit in France are fishermen. In 2017, vessels in Northern France, Normandy and Brittany made 50 per cent of their catches in the British waters, representing a revenue of €110 million per year. French fishermen, therefore, want to keep their fishing rights in UK waters. Complaints from other quarters will probably emerge when Brexit takes effect, but for the moment there are very few of them. British diplomats are targeting French businessmen in the hope of negotiating a trade agreement before the end of the withdrawal phase. Some voices inside the business organization MEDEF are clearly passing on this British official position.
On the other side of the discussion, some French commentators have started to discuss the opportunities offered by Brexit, as in the case of the Paris financial community. Senior bankers regularly stress to the press that Paris must attract financial firms based in London which do not want to lose passporting rights. The focus is particularly directed towards non- EU banks. Bruno Lemaire, the French minister of Economics, went to New York in August 2017 to try to convince the financial community to move their branches from London to Paris. The same argument is frequently used by officials and businessmen to attract Japanese bankers to the French capital.
At present, the concrete results of this strategy are modest. There is one example: the announcement in February 2017 by HSBC’s CEO that he will move 20% of the bank activity to Paris before Brexit day. Although that will involve about 1000 people, Frankfurt seems for the moment to have been more successful than Paris in attracting financial companies from the City. Representatives of the French regions, especially from Northern France (Lille and the Hauts-de-France) are travelling to London in the hope of persuading some companies based in the UK to move to France after Brexit.
President Macron and Brexit
Brexit negotiations take place as the new French president, Emmanuel Macron, is developing an important political narrative on the future of the EU. Macron has delivered several speeches on the EU, including at the Sorbonne on 26 September 2017. In strategic terms, Macron’s speeches are addressed primarily to the 25 per cent of pro-EU French voters who supported him. The rest of the French population is either sceptical or indifferent to the EU. The recurrent theme in Macron’s speeches is that Brexit is an opportunity for France to relaunch the EU together with Germany.
Building a strong Franco-German relationship inside Europe is not a very new narrative among the pro-EU camp in France. A ‘Jamaica coalition’ between the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union parties (CDU/CSU), Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the Greens in Berlin will not make the task easy for Macron. For instance, his proposals to create a specific budget and new institutions for the Eurozone are not supported at all by the Liberals from the FPD, nor by the Bavarian CSU. In Macron’s message on the future of Europe, Brexit is presented as the opposite trend to the ‘hard core’ he wants to build around the euro with Germany and a limited number of member states.
In addition to the President’s broader plans for the EU, there has also been some activity across the government and legislature to work on the fine detail of the negotiations. The General Secretariat for European Affairs, which coordinates EU matters under the Prime Minister, has been involved in mapping French interests in Article 50, while the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has headed up a task force for managing the process, including knock-on consequences. Meanwhile, the Assemblée Nationale has created a standing group to monitor the process in the immediate aftermath of the vote.
Brexit negotiations between the Barnier and Davis teams have kept the most difficult topics for the end. These negotiations will probably not provoke a great deal of debate in France and will leave a comfortable margin of manoeuvre for the French government. Some segments of the French business community, however, will lobby the government to make sure that free movement of goods and services between UK and France remains easy under the new trade agreement. In 2017, the UK remains France’s fifth most important customer and its eighth most important supplier. But the volume of trade is much less important than with Germany. Defence is the issue on which France will regret not having the UK in the EU any more. But the French defence community (both officers and politicians) also insists that most of the defence cooperation with the UK will continue on a bilateral basis, using the framework of the 2010 Lancaster House Agreement.
And then there is the issue of the British citizens living in France. Statistics about their number are not clear, as EU citizens do not have to register. They range from 150,000 to 400,000, mostly dispersed across rural areas where they own properties. There has been no antagonism in France against those British expatriates in the wake of the Brexit decision. French small cities and villages are very much accustomed to ‘their’ Brits. In some regions in the South-West, such as Lot, Dordogne, and Charente, there has been a dramatic surge in the number of British applications for French citizenship. The newspaper Le Monde reports an increase of 254% between 2015 and 2017, from 385 applications in 2015 to 1363 at the beginning of 2017. There have been many examples of French citizens helping their British neighbours and friends to fill in the very complicated forms.
Losing the UK as an EU partner is not an issue which has much concerned French society. To a certain extent, this indifference gives more credit to Brexiteers than the British citizens who opposed Brexit. The politics of ‘minimalist engagement’ supported by all British governments since 1973 explains this French perception. At the level of governments, Brexit appears a manageable issue as long as it does not affect the principles of European integration, which means the integrity of the Single Market and the budgetary burden sharing.
Of course, France has its own Eurosceptic parties, on both the left and the right. These parties represented 45% of the total first-round votes in the 2017 presidential election. But French Eurosceptic voters do not necessarily support a ‘Frexit’. Even the idea of an exit from the euro is not very popular among the French Eurosceptic electorate: one of Marine Le Pen’s mistakes during the presidential campaign was to moot the withdrawal of France from the Eurozone. Many FN voters, especially among the middle-class part of her electorate, were against this because they worried about the stability of their savings.
This explains why Le Pen had to create a somewhat strange narrative at the end of her campaign, saying that she wants to go back to the French franc but without renouncing the euro – a proposal which makes no sense from an economic point of view. The recent resignation of Le Pen’s lieutenant Florian Philippot from the FN is linked to this debate. Philippot was heavily criticised inside the party for having recommended to Le Pen that France leave the Eurozone. So even among the most established Eurosceptic party, exit from the EU is considered a British idiosyncrasy rather than an example that France should follow.
This article gives the views of the author, not the position of LSE Brexit or the London School of Economics. It first appeared on The UK in a Changing Europe.
Christian Lequesne is Professor of Political Science, Sciences Po, Paris.