After meticulously avoiding the subject of Europe in the first round of the presidential primary, the French Republican Party’s remaining candidates will have no choice but to tackle the divisive issue head on in the second round. EURACTIV France reports.
While understated, Alain Juppé’s campaign has been firmly pro-European. He appears to be the first choice for French voters living abroad, particularly in the Benelux countries, where he took 48% of the vote in the first round of the primary. François Fillon and Nicolas Sarkozy took 35% and 7% respectively.
The veteran politician, who served as prime minister under Jacques Chirac and foreign minister under Sarkozy, has filled his campaign team with specialists on European affairs, including MEP Alain Lamassoure and Senator Fabienne Keller.
He also met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in June. According to our sources, they discussed a plan to breathe life back into the European project and reanimate its ailing communal spirit… assuming they are both elected next year.
“The main role of a president is international: he represents France at the European level, and his first visits should be to Berlin and Brussels, not Limoges,” one of the candidate’s aides said.
For Juppé, restoring France’s credibility in Berlin means restoring financial stability at home. With this in mind, his team has drawn up a finance bill designed to reassure France’s European partners with medium-term cuts to public spending.
His vision for Europe is a tighter, more integrated Union, focussed on a smaller number of core countries. In this regard, Juppé’s sees almost eye-to-eye with François Hollande and Emmanuel Macron.
François Fillon’s approach is radically different. As he indicated in a speech to the French parliament the day after Brexit, the Parisian MP wants to reduce the power of the European Commission, giving more control to the Council of the EU.
“We will never be one federal state. We are just too different. And, incidentally, it would be a historic mistake, because closer ties between states breed more aggressive nationalism,” Fillon said.
He also evoked the establishment of a eurozone government, formed not of a specially-elected eurozone parliament, but of representatives from national parliaments and governments.
National Front MEP Florian Philippot attacked the Republican frontrunner on Sunday (20 November) evening, saying his plans would hand more power over to Brussels. Fillon’s spokesman Jérôme Chartier immediately countered the claim, saying that, on the contrary, the candidate intended to claw powers back from Europe.
In short, Fillon’s calls to defend French sovereignty in response to appeals for more Europe are designed to win over potential National Front voters.
Sarkozy’s decision to support Fillon for the Republican candidacy after his own elimination in the first round of the primary has broadened his former prime minister’s support base. It has also placed him firmly on Sarkozy’s Eurosceptic platform.
Disappointing the EPP
Hollande’s predecessor made a very bad impression at the European People’s Party (EPP) summit in the South of France in June. Before a room full of convinced Europhiles, the leader of the Republican Party held forth about the rights and wrongs of Europe dictating the straightness of cucumbers and the size of stepladders; well-worn populist terrain.
He went on to say that in his view, a country was first and foremost a border. This was a great disappointment to the other EPP dignitaries, who had rather fonder memories of Sarkozy, from the pro-Europe speeches he delivered in the European Parliament.
This surprising campaign came to an abrupt end on Sunday night, causing Sarkozy to withdraw from political life for the second time. But according to Swiss newspaper Le Temps, a comeback at European level cannot be ruled out: Donald Tusk will vacate his position at the head of the Council early next year, and some observers believe the Republican leader could be lining up to replace him.
The greatest concern for France’s European partners is the next president’s foreign policy priorities. Fascinated by Vladimir Putin, Fillon has in the past shown a complacent attitude towards Russia, particularly on the Ukrainian conflict.
He became familiar with the Russian leader while serving as prime minister. And has maintained contact since leaving office, visiting Putin’s personal datcha and attending the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
It is hard to image Fillon pushing Europe to strengthen its sanctions on Russia, if he becomes president.
And Russia’s propaganda machine could hardly be clearer: the MP is a regular reader of Sputnik, the Kremlin-financed multilingual news service, and the site has dedicated several articles to Fillon’s praise for Putin’s actions in Syria.