EU country briefing: France

[Photo :Robert Steenland]

The following article is a part of a series of brief country profiles for the EU-28 ahead of the European elections in May.

France spearheaded the European Project with its proposal for a European Coal and Steel Community in 1950, and its centrality to the project remains undiminished, with the French playing a key role in the creation of the eurozone in 1999.

With 67 million people, France is the second largest member state of the EU-27 by population and GDP. Post-Brexit, its population would represent 15% of the EU total.

French public attitude towards the EU appears in line with the EU average, with 61% maintaining a positive outlook of the EU versus 29% indifferent and 9% with a negative outlook, approximating the EU average (62/25/11).

Most (72%) also support the euro as the common currency and a majority feel (62%) they are EU citizens. However, a big chunk doesn’t (37%), and only 33% trust the EU while 57% don’t.

Economy:

France’s economy has had meagre growth in recent years. Yet, the IMF hailed “impressive progress” of its reforms in 2018 and the European Commission’s (EC) autumn forecast predicted more economic growth.

However, the Commission’s winter forecast was more downcast, with global uncertainties and the ‘Yellow Vest’ protests, ongoing since November 2018, undermining GDP growth.

France’s economy expanded 1.4% on average annually (real GDP), which is below Germany’s (1.9%) and the EU average (2.1%). For 2019, it is expected to grow by just 1.3%, below the EU average (1.5%). Despite this, France has the second highest GDP (total GDP of €2,3 trillion in 2017), representing 17.6% of the EU-27 total (without UK).

Real GDP per capita was €32,500 in 2017, above the EU28 average (€27,700), but sluggish  for a decade. Moreover, in purchasing power standards (PPS), its per capita GDP has declined for more than a decade and stood at 104% of the EU28 average in 2017.

The recently declining unemployment rate was 9.1% in 2018, and expected to drop further to 8.4% by 2020, although this is above the EU28 averages of 7% (2018) and 6.3% (2020). While youth unemployment has also been declining, it was still at 20.2% in 2018, way above the EU average of 15.6%.

Political context and direction

France is governed by its Constitution of the Fifth Republic, established by General Charles de Gaulle in 1958. It superseded the highly unstable constitutions of the third and fourth republics.

This constitution established a semi-presidential republic. The president is the head of state and most powerful political figure, appointing the head of government – the prime minister.

Gaullism (named after de Gaulle, who became president in 1959), with its principles of personalisation of politics, national sovereignty, a strong unitary state, and dirigisme (state stewardship of the economy), still influences every political party.

However, in the 1980s, traditionally right-wing Gaullist parties loosened up some of their former principles, showing more support to European integration, deregulation, and privatisation.

France’s elections were until recently dominated by the centre-left Socialists (PS) and the centre-right Gaullists (LR, formerly UMP), followed by the centrist MoDem (formerly UDF).

Gaullism aside, the declining dominance of the main centre-left and centre-right parties was effectively broken by the populist far-right National Rally (RN, formerly FN) and the establishment of Macron’s centrist En Marche (EM, now LREM), which allied with MoDem, in 2017.

Both made it to the second round of the 2017 presidential ballot, leaving behind the Socialists, who had imploded after the unpopular reign (2012-2017) of former President  François Hollande, while corruption scandals forced LR’s candidate François Fillon into third place (closely followed by the hard-left-wing populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon).

After Macron became president, his LREM posted a sweeping victory in the legislatives. However, his popular support has been dwindling ever since to reach the levels of the unpopular Hollande. This was in part due to the carbon tax and reforms his government introduced, which were perceived by a part of the population as targeting working people and the country´s economically more depressed areas.

His reform agenda suffered a major setback with the emergence of the ‘Gilets Jaunes’ (Yellow Vests) protests, which have been going on since November 2018. The movement has made few coherent demands besides denouncing tough living conditions. The carbon tax driven by environmental concerns was the final straw that triggered the protests.

The European Parliament elections this year will be crucial for Macron, who has sought to make the election a de-facto referendum. By doing so, Macron has presented himself and his LREM party as the ‘‘good’’ reformist pro-EU force.

On the other hand, the ‘‘bad’’ nationalist RN (formally Front National) depicts itself as the sole defender of French identity. It draws most support from economically depressed and rural areas. In the 2014 EP elections, it won a simple majority within France. RN now positions itself vehemently against Macron, parading its traditional concerns of immigration, globalisation and economic deregulation.

All in all, France’s former dominant social cleavage seems to have been replaced in part by the identitarian cleavage, based e.g. on divergent urban and rural identities. RN tried (and failed) to incorporate the Yellow Vest protests into its political platform. The latter could undermine RN support if they were to field their own candidates as a proper party.

Predictions

Despite LREM’s and Macron’s slide in the polls, they have been recovering slowly amidst economic concessions and the Yellow Vest protests’ running out of steam. Moreover, Macron’s launching of a ‘great national debate’ that included dozens of town hall meetings has had some success in defusing the movement and allowing citizens to ventilate their thoughts, ideas and frustrations.

Due to this, some recent polls actually suggest a tight victory with 23.5%-25% of the vote. This would translate in 23-25 MEP mandates, which are expected to go to the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), although this remains unclear.

Nonetheless, RN may repeat its 2014 EP success by finishing first, as projections suggest it has circa 21-21.5% support now in the polls. This would imply circa 21 seats for the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF).

Far behind, the weakened LR would obtain 11-13 seats for the European People’s Party (EPP), the Greens (EELV) 8 seats for the Greens–European Free Alliance (Greens/EFA), Mélenchon’s France Insoumise 7 seats (FI) for a new Eurosceptic left group.

The socialist PS that polls just barely above the 5% threshold would see its diminished position confirmed with just 5-6 seats for the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D).

Another notable mention is the Eurosceptic right-wing Gaullist Debout la France, which could win 4-5 seats [if it makes the threshold] for the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe (ACRE).

Likewise, a Yellow Vest political party could gain seats as well, although this becomes increasingly unlikely.

Altogether, these predictions confirm radical changes in France’s political scene, as the two strongest parties are outside the traditional political alternation, and more than a half of French MEPs are expected to be from either the fringes of the political spectrum or the newcomer LREM.

Pablo Ribera Payá is a PhD candidate in European Studies at Masaryk University and works in EU policy analysis and communication. He holds a double degree master in European Governance.

Robert Steenland works as an evaluation and research consultant in EU policies, as well as an analyst in EU politics.  He holds a double degree master in European Governance.

Daniel Matthews-Ferrero is a Marie Curie PhD Student in the POLITICO programme at the University of Aberdeen, focusing on contemporary Western European populism. He holds a master degree in European Interdisciplinary Studies from the College of Europe.

Simona Brăileanu works in evaluation and research in EU policies and holds a master degree in International Relations.

More on France and European elections at EUelectionsFrance.com

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