Debate in France over holding referendum on same day as European election

The referendum could take the form of multiple choice questions. [Shutterstock]

The idea of holding a referendum on national issues from the French “great debate” at the same time as the European elections is generating much discussion, both within the ruling ranks and the opposition. EURACTIV France reports.

Having been raised on Sunday (3 February), the idea of holding a French national referendum on 26 May quickly drew reactions from the French political class.

French President Emmanuel Macron would consider holding this consultation on 26 May – the same day as the European elections – on various issues covered as part of the “great debate,” according to Le Journal du Dimanche weekly newspaper.

French voters would therefore be asked to express their opinion on reducing the number of French MPs, recognising blank votes and setting a time limit on holding multiple offices.

Mixing subjects?

The opposition quickly showed its scepticism, following the example of the leader of the conservative Les Républicains (LR) party Laurent Wauquiez, who believed that the French President “will be taking a big risk” if the questions do not reflect French people’s priorities.

The leader of the LR list for the European elections, François-Xavier Bellamy, said with certainty on Radio Classique “that we won’t find a way out of the ‘yellow vests’ crisis with a referendum.”

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Pro-Europeans on the left but also in the ruling La République En Marche (LREM) regretted that this suggestion could obscure the topic of Europe. However, they also recognised that the referendum would have the advantage of bringing more voters to the polling stations.

On the far-right, Marine Le Pen also railed against the idea of a referendum which may take the wind out of her sails. This is because the far-right leader advocates holding a referendum on EU membership. She therefore said that she saw such a vote as a “manoeuvre,” intended to “shift attention away from the matter of the European elections.”

Even within the majority, voices have been raised to protest against the proposal. For example, Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian said he opposed the referendum vote.

“The European issue is strong enough to make it a European issue. The referendum is something else, it’s a national issue. I think we mustn’t mix the two (…) that would not be desirable,” he told France Inter public radio station.

Minister for European Affairs Nathalie Loiseau also stated that she wanted Europe to be the subject of discussions on 26 May. Similarly, French MP Aurélien Taché (LREM) said he was “a little sceptical about the date” of the referendum.

On Monday (4 February) morning, delegate general of En Marche, Stanislas Guerini, stalled on public radio station France Info, stating that “all of the answers [could not] be contained in a referendum.”

MEP Jean Arthuis, who has supported Macron from the beginning, was not convinced by the idea either.

“What is at stake in the European elections is crucial: building a global power by getting the EU out of the lethargy it has sunk into. The idea of @RepubliqueMarch of holding European elections and referendum on the same day may create unfortunate confusion. The focus has to be on Europe,” Arthuis tweeted.

Among Macron’s supporters, some make the argument that the referendum will lead to higher turnout. Holding a referendum would encourage people to vote, which would lend MEPs greater credibility.

Voter turnout for the European elections has steadily declined since the first elections held in 1979, falling from 60% to 40.63% in France in 2009, before climbing to 42.4% in 2014. The latter was slightly below the European average (42.6%).

If it is able to draw a higher turnout for the European elections, the presidential party (LREM) has every chance of strengthening its leading position in a manoeuvre which, understandably, is a concern to the opposition.

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[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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