Europe finally takes centre stage in French election

Vincent Peillon as France's minister for education. [Parti Socialiste/Flickr]

In their eagerness to distance themselves from the National Front, the left-wing candidates for the French presidency are suddenly discovering their pro-European side. Some even want more sovereignty to go to Brussels. EURACTIV France reports.

Despite the best efforts of the right-wing candidates to tip-toe around the subject of Europe during their primary, including during the three hours of televised debate, it is now becoming an unavoidable part of the presidential race.

With the left now in the spotlight ahead of its primary later this month, Europe has been placed centre-stage – for very different reasons – by at least two candidates: Vincent Peillon and Marine Le Pen.

Vincent Peillon: the 'Third man' in the French elections

Vincent Peillon, an MEP and France’s former education minister, will declare his candidacy for the 2017 presidential election this weekend. The surge of new candidates on the left is showing no sign of drying up. EURACTIV France reports.

National Front leader Le Pen repeated her pledge to return sovereignty to the French people, including over economic and monetary issues, in an interview with the radio station RMC on Tuesday (3 January).

“The French people want less Europe and more France,” the extreme right candidate said.

The position of the left is much less clear-cut. Arnaud Montebourg never misses an opportunity to lash out at Europe, a trait he shares with Left Party MEP Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who blames French unemployment on posted workers from the EU, while most of the other left-wing candidates are at least nominally Europhiles.

Valls discovers the Europhile in him

Despite his lukewarm appreciation of the European Union during his two years as Prime Minister, Manuel Valls appears to have recently discovered much stronger European convictions.

His threat last July to stop applying the posted workers directive, in an attempt to give France a stronger hand in the debate on the protection of salaries, did not go down well in Brussels. A European source described this tactic as “counter-productive”, saying it had not furthered the discussion in any way.

Valls was not well known among foreign journalists and his trips to Brussels as head of the French government often went unnoticed by the European media. None of which stopped him from proudly declaring on Tuesday that he was “deeply European”.

But this reference to his Spanish roots can hardly erase his record. Neither can his statement that France must cut its deficit below 3% of GDP “to avoid having to negotiate its future with its creditors”.

Valls opts for growth over deficit reduction

The French premier has told the European Commission that Paris intends to honour its budget commitments, but has ruled out any measures that could threaten the country’s anaemic economic growth. EURACTIV France reports

While at the helm of the government, Valls failed to bring the deficit under the EU’s 3% threshold.

Peillon, the EU’s flag bearer

Vincent Peillon, an MEP and a more convincing Europhile, was the last candidate to join the race. He spent the first two years of his European mandate teaching philosophy in Switzerland and writing a thriller, Aurora, published by Stock last spring.

Of all the candidates in the race, he is the one placing the greatest emphasis on Europe. The former minister for education is today campaigning for a Europe that is “up to the challenge” of the migration crisis, with a European border guard service.

But this service already exists: Jean-Claude Juncker announced it in 2015 and the first agents were deployed last October. Peillon is also one of the few to campaign for a real system of hosting migrants, and for a humanitarian corridor to allow EU countries to take in migrants directly from their countries of origin.

“This inability to host refugees harms Europe’s fundamental values. It is a historic crime that history will remember,” the candidate said in an interview on France 2.

Peillon also said he would champion an “assertive European strategy” and restart the “French-German motor”. And just as François Hollande did at the start of his mandate, he also spoke of a “European New Deal.”

Hollande’s ambitious 'New Deal' for Europe

French President François Hollande proposed a Keynesian-style investment plan for Europe, which includes investments of €1.2 trillion to renew economic growth. EURACTIV France reports.

While Hollande called for €1.2 trillion of investment, Peillon would be satisfied with €1tr. But the reality is that the Juncker Plan was worth just €315 billion, of which only half has so far been invested. And trying to convince the other EU member states to back such a large Keynesian package would not be an easy task.

As president, Peillon also hopes to present a eurozone budget to support jobs and growth. But again, the need to reach an agreement between the 19 countries of the single currency is likely to amputate any such budget of its most ambitious measures.

And the idea of a eurozone budgetary capacity has failed to win over all but a few members of the currency zone.

His attitude towards the bloc is thus the opposite of most of the other candidates, who, on the rare occasions they mention Europe, have little positive to say about it.

“I do not think Europe was built to return sovereignty to the states. Europe is made by the transfer of sovereignty,” Peillon said.

While Le Pen is polling at around 26%, Peillon’s popularity is a complete unknown. No polls have been cônducted since he announced his candidacy in December.

Macron: German response to refugee crisis 'saved Europe's dignity'

The Europhile candidate for the French presidency has congratulated Germany for saving Europe’s collective dignity by opening its arms to refugees.

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