Le Pen’s U-turn on EU policy is proving difficult to sell

The far-right candidate also expressed her opposition to the "multiplication of free trade agreements" and to the EU's posted workers policy. EPA-EFE/LUDOVIC MARIN / POOL MAXPPP OUT [LUDOVIC MARIN/EPA]

France’s far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen insists she wants to remain in the EU and “deeply” reform it despite accusations that her programme is just a veiled “Frexit”. EURACTIV France reports.

Le Pen and the incumbent President Emmanuel Macron, who are set to face off in the final election round on Sunday (24 April), disagreed on EU-related matters during a televised debate on Wednesday (20 April).

However, compared to the 2017 presidential elections, where the two also battled it out in the final round, Le Pen is no longer advocating for France to leave the EU.

This time, she said she wants to “profoundly change the EU to create a European alliance of nations” based on the principle that there can be no “European sovereignty because there are no European people.”

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“I want to make this European organisation evolve,” she said. “Europe is not all or nothing,” said Le Pen, indicating that she would now prefer to concentrate her efforts on reforming certain European projects with which she disagrees.

The far-right candidate also expressed her opposition to the “multiplication of free trade agreements” and to the EU’s posted workers policy, which would lead to French employers giving preference to foreigners and benefit “hundreds of thousands” of workers from the rest of Europe.

Le Pen also referred to the EU’s flagship Farm to Fork strategy, which she said is leading to a drop in agricultural production at a time when the bloc is facing a major food crisis due to Russia’s war in Ukraine.

“I want the Commission to respect sovereign nations, including their choices of society,” said Le Pen, who, in her programme, has proposed to establish “the supremacy of national law” over EU laws if the French accept this in a referendum.

However, during Wednesday’s debate, Macron did not seem convinced about what distinguishes her project from a de facto “Frexit”.

“You still want to get out, but you don’t say it anymore,” said Macron, whom Le Pen called very “Europe-centric”. “It’s a project that doesn’t say its name,” insisted Macron, accusing his opponent of “lying about the goods”.

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French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen has softened her stance on France’s possible exit from the EU but her programme for the country, if elected, suggests otherwise.

A disguised ‘Frexit’

“Even if she has chosen to hide her assumed Europhobia in 2017 for purely tactical reasons, a victory by Marine Le Pen on 24 April would pose a major risk to France’s membership of the European Union, the eurozone and the Schengen area,” according to a statement signed by some fifty civil society organisations and pro-European MPs published this week. The group also called on the French to “vote for France in Europe, and therefore against the far-right”.

In her programme, the candidate says she also wants to “re-establish permanent surveillance and control of our borders” by the French police and customs to compensate for the EU’s “serious failings”. Such a move, however, would question the free movement of goods and people, some of the bloc’s founding principles.

Last week, Le Pen also made it clear that traditional cooperation with Germany would not be among her priorities.

According to EU affairs specialist Daniel Desesquelle who presides on the jury of the EEE Agency, a Le Pen presidency would lead to Franco-German relations deteriorating “very quickly in a vertiginous way”. “When Europe works, it is when the French and the Germans are on the same line,” he added.

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According to the Rassemblement National leadership, practice, rather than institutional reform, will be key in bringing about change in the EU.

This method is unlikely to bear fruit, argues Desesquelle. “One does not impose by banging one’s fist on the table […] Europe is the reign of consensus”, even though France traditionally carries more weight in the debates, the analyst said.

Even Macron’s “positive dynamism” has only enabled him to bring about “change very slowly, at the end of the fourth and fifth year.”

If Le Pen is elected on Sunday, “Europe will be very shaken up”, according to Desesquelle. “The empty chair policy does not allow you to impose your views” on other partners, he added.

Allies in Europe?

To impact the European scene, those in charge of the far-right party’s Europe dossier are hoping for good ties with Poland, Hungary and even Denmark, which has toughened its stance on immigration.

However, due to the European far-right parties being divided on many issues, and the fact that they are not in power in most countries, France is more at “risk of powerlessness and isolation” if Le Pen were elected on Sunday, Desequelle also said.

“The only real ally of Ms Le Pen is Hungary,” said Desesquelle, dismissing the idea that Poland could be an unwavering backer of a government led by Le Pen, given the party’s past relations with Russia and President Vladimir Putin.

If Hungary and France were to form an alliance against the other 25 bloc countries, “the arrival of Marine Le Pen [at the Elysée] will complicate, will destabilise the other Europeans,” Desequelle also said.

If Le Pen is elected on Sunday, the remaining two months of the French EU Council presidency (EUFP) until 30 June, will no longer be “political”, according to Desesquelle who said “it is dead in the water” though there may be “a small symbolic coup”.

This observation is shared by a senior French official and connoisseur of European issues, who did not wish to comment further.

Le Pen’s campaign team did not respond to EURACTIV France’s inquiries about their plans for the French EU presidency.

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[Edited by Alice Taylor]

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