Europe notable in its absence from French right-wing debate

One of the seven candidates is likely to face off against far-right candidate Marie Le Pen in May next year. [TFI]

The seven candidates vying for the French right’s presidential nomination squared off again in their second televised debate last night (3 November). But European issues were largely absent from the proceedings. EURACTIV France reports.

Setting out their stalls for the penultimate time before the first ballot on 20 November were Bruno Le Maire, Alain Juppé, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, Nicolas Sarkozy, Jean-François Copé, Jean-Frédéric Poisson and François Fillon.

Questioned about their views on current issues, they shared their takes on security, the fight against terrorism and education. But European policy, which had been touted as a talking point, was notably absent.

The removal of the Calais Jungle this week provided the candidates a unique opportunity to talk all things migration. All seven were in agreement that the Touquet treaty, which formally set the France-UK border on the French side of the Channel, would have to be renegotiated.

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The agreement was brokered back in 2003 by Sarkozy himself, who was then minister of the interior; the deal is now held responsible for the current situation in Calais. Jean-François Copé complained that “Calais is the result of a treaty signed with the British in 2003, which we absolutely have to renegotiate. We have become the hotspot of Europe!”

Sarkozy went a step further, insisting that “we have to open a hotspot in the UK for the British so that they can decide themselves who they want to let it; it is not up to us to do it. Kosciusko-Morizet added that the British border “was not meant to be in France”.

Juppé, who is still leading the polls, shared the same view: “We must denounce the Touquet treaty, which forces us to keep the people Britain doesn’t want.”

Europe a divisive issue

If the Anglo-French border is a uniting factor for the candidates, the European issue is most certainly one of the more divisive.

During the debate, Sarkozy’s former prime minister, François Fillon, and leader of the Christian Democratic Party Frédéric Poisson launched an all-out attack on European governance, accusing it of robbing France of part of its sovereignty.

“We are within a European framework that deprives us of our sovereignty,” warned Poisson, who is most to the right of the political spectrum of the candidates.

One of his proposals is to opt out of the “supervision of the European Court of Human Rights”, whose rulings impose criteria on member states to respect the Convention on Human Rights.

Fillon said that he wants to be an “uncompromising president on the issue of national sovereignty, if it is attacked by our enemies or even our allies”.

National sovereignty

The issue of sovereignty has been largely present in the primary campaign so far. Sarkozy, for example, has proposed returning control to EU member states when it comes to the decision-making process and implementing decisions by the European Council, representing heads of states and governments.

“However, the calling into question of EU competences by Sarkozy and Poisson is not particularly supported at this moment in time,” explained Elvire Fabry, researcher at the Jacques Delors Institute. She added that “Juppé is the only one that stands out by calling for this foundation to be reinforced. That didn’t halt the calls for more transparency though.”

Fabry’s colleague at the institute, Eulalia Rubio, added that this tension about national sovereignty is “a constant when it comes to France: wanting more European integration, but fearing loss of economic sovereignty at the same time”.

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“Sometimes we see the same contradiction in policymaking. For example, there are always calls for harmonisation on tax, but nothing on the creation of a European fiscal mechanism,” she added.

Among the other candidates, Bruno Le Maire, Juppé and Copé have not called into question the functioning of the EU, even if ideas have been floated of establishing a ‘core’ Europe, in particular in Germany and France itself.

Kosciusko-Morizet is the only candidate to propose a more federalist stance, suggesting that the European Parliament should be elected from party lists, rather than by country, as it currently is.

Calls for new EU treaty

Another new issue in the debate is the increasing amount of calls for a new European treaty, which would have to be put to a referendum. Sarkozy, Le Maire and Fillon have all proposed the idea of holding a referendum, based on the fears of polarisation on European issues and the possibility of France deciding to follow the UK out of the EU.

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“Clearly there is the issue of holding a referendum in France, especially after Brexit,” admitted Elvire Fabry. “This type of referendum would be taking a completely disproportionate risk compared to a reorientation of the European agenda.”

Before the debate, the latest polls still showed Juppé enjoying a sizeable lead over Sarkozy. However, a 1 November poll by Ifop-Fiducial for iTELE, Paris Match and Sud Radio showed that the gap between the two had partially closed. The former president was now polling at 31% compared with Juppé’s 37%.

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