While political parties in France show little interest for European matters, French MEPs usually show a good level of parliamentary activity, according to the Robert Schuman Foundation, an EU think-tank.
French MEPs were surprisingly absent from the European Parliament's plenary session in Strasbourg last Thursday (16 January).
Many of them had conflicting agendas. The French Socialist and Green parties had convened a meeting with the press in Paris, while the centre-right opposition UMP was organising a hearing for its EU election candidates, also in the French capital.
"It's always difficult to make national parties understand the requirements of Brussels," admitted a participant at one of the Paris meetings.
Tendency to underestimate Europe in Paris
Indeed, the tendency to underestimate the importance of Europe is systematic among the political elite in Paris, according to a new study by the Robert Schuman Foundation. Lawmakers almost always opt for a national career and being sent to Strasbourg can often be seen as a punishment, a case illustrated at the last EU election by Rachida Dati, a former justice minister under Nicolas Sarkozy, who only reluctantly accepted her new position.
Thierry Chopin, the author of the study, says French parties should change this attitude by encouraging longer careers in the European Parliament, as the UK and Germany already do. In those countries, MEPs serve on average 2.4 mandates against 1.8 for the French.
Preventing MEPs from holding multiple mandates at the same time, as is already the case in other countries, could also help change the mindset, Chopin said.
The study does not criticise the EU lawmakers themselves but rather the national political parties to which they are affiliated. It is indeed up to the parties to accept or refuse multiple mandates, and it is also up to them to decide whether candidates should run for office again.
High participation rate
In fact, French MEPs are relatively good when it comes to EU parliamentary activity.
As the website “MEP ranking” shows, France is 10th out of 28 in terms of activity. When it comes to questions addressed to other EU institutions, the French are 8th, and climb to second place when it comes to adopted motions.
For adopted reports, they are third; French MEPs made 12,675 parliamentary speeches bringing them to second place behind Portugal.
Finally, they are 19th out of 28 for participation in the votes, which would not exceptional except for the fact that the EU parliament is in France, but perhaps nothing to be ashamed of either in terms of potential influence.
Women show better results than men in the Parliament, according to the list, with MEPs like Sophie Auconie who is 26th out of 765 or Marielle de Sarnez, 41st, while far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen has participated in 66% of the votes only, or Socialist MEP Harlem Desir, at the bottom of the list with 51% voting participation.
But the activity is very disparate and is not to be measured only through voting.
A communist French MEP is ranked in the first ten percent and has put 170 parliamentary questions.
A small group of 13 French socialist MEPs, dubbed “commando”, succeeded in influencing a number of legislative dossiers over the last term.
Favouring the incumbents
In the French opposition party the UMP, whose EU elections list is being prepared, most incumbents are expected to run for another EU mandate.
“There will be a clear priority for the incumbent MEPs," said MEP Phillippe Juvin.
This change of strategy stems from a general will to boost the French influence in the Parliament.
“There are a number of factors such as the likely decrease of UMP MEPs, the fact that EPP president Joseph Daul is leaving and the change of government in France that will require the next delegation to be particularly offensive,” says Jean-Pierre Audy, president of the French delegation in the EPP.
However the MEPs lack of media visibility will have to be compensated by the candidacy of a few resounding names.
“We need some very famous national list leaders,” Juvin says.
As an illustration, the former minister Nadine Morano will run with MEP Arnaud Danjean in their constituency.
In the European Parliament, each country has a fixed number of seats, which are calculated based on their population.
Elections are contested by national political parties but once MEPs are elected, most opt to become part of transnational political groups.
Most national parties are affiliated to a European-wide political family so one of the big questions on election night is which of these European groupings will exert greater influence on the decisions taken in the next legislative term.
The European Council must take the election results into account when choosing a nominee for the post of president of the European Commission, the executive arm of the EU.
- 22-25 May 2014: EU Parliament elections in all 28 member states