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What if France voted to leave the European Union?

Posted by hkarner - 7. August 2016

Date: 04-08-2016
Source: The Economist: Charlemagne
Subject: Au revoir, l’Europe

BARELY a year into his second presidency, Nicolas Sarkozy looked out from the steps of the Élysée and admitted defeat. The referendum had been lost. The European Union flag still fluttering behind him, the president said that he regretted that France, a founding member of the EU, would now have to leave it. Pollsters were flabbergasted. Mr Sarkozy put on a brave face. “Eternal France”, he said, trying to sound like de Gaulle, had endured far worse in its long and glorious history. Its best days lay ahead. And non, the president had no intention of resigning.

His optimism was unusual. Mr Sarkozy had won another spell in the Élysée by trafficking in fear (borrowing several ideas from Donald Trump’s almost-successful campaign for the White House). In the primary for France’s centre-right Republicans, held in November 2016, Mr Sarkozy had focused relentlessly on the country’s année de cauchemars (“year of nightmares”), blaming weak leaders and bumbling Eurocrats for failing to prevent a bloody series of terrorist attacks. In this febrile atmosphere Mr Sarkozy’s rival, the genteel Alain Juppé, didn’t stand a chance.
The same arguments carried Mr Sarkozy through the first round of the following year’s presidential election. But in the run-off pressure from a surging Marine Le Pen, who campaigned openly for France to follow Britain out of the EU, forced him to beat the nationalist drum even harder. A plot to bomb the railway station in Lille, organised over the Belgian border in Namur, was foiled just in time, but added to the sense that the EU’s commitment to open borders was endangering French lives. Eventually Mr Sarkozy pledged a referendum on France’s EU membership within a year of taking office. (Inevitably, the plebiscite was dubbed “Frexit”.) It won him the presidency.

Ms Le Pen’s National Front made the running during the referendum campaign, tapping old French neuroses about cheap eastern European workers and newer ones about Muslims. Mr Sarkozy argued vigorously for France to stay in the EU. But voters found it hard to swallow his bromides about European co-operation after years of hearing him rail against it. The opposition Socialists were in disarray. A gloomy (and, said some, racially charged) piece in Le Figaro by Michel Houellebecq, an eccentric author, accusing Europe of “auto-crucifixion”, seemed to capture the mood of malaise. In the end it was not even close: the French voted to leave by 55%-45%.

The loss liberated Mr Sarkozy to indulge the grittier side of his politics. He revived his old idea of shutting the border with Italy, across which refugees from Libya’s civil war were streaming. The revelation that a refugee who entered Belgium in the wave of 2015 had had a bit-part in the Lille plot allowed the president to accuse Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, of having endangered European security by opening her country’s borders. Mrs Merkel was not amused; not least because the ringleader of the foiled attack was not a refugee or even an immigrant, but a French-Algerian child of the Paris banlieue.

The euro had played little part in the referendum campaign. Indeed, the hastily drafted referendum text did not mention the single currency at all. So the finest legal minds in Brussels were put to work to find a way to keep France inside the euro even after it left the EU. That didn’t keep markets from swooning. France was, after all, the second-largest economy in the euro zone. The French elite believed more passionately in the EU than they did in God. Without Paris to propel it along, what hope was there for the European project? Bond yields in Greece, Portugal and Italy soared. Mario Draghi, the head of the European Central Bank, sought vainly to calm investors’ nerves.

After a summit of the 26 other members in Sofia, Mrs Merkel declared gamely that the EU would survive, because “we are always stronger together than apart”. Her domestic popularity, which had been waning after her fourth election victory, rose as quickly as the Bunds into which frightened investors had poured their money. But Mrs Merkel acknowledged that a “momentous” change to the EU treaty was needed. (Merkologists confirmed that this was the chancellor’s first known use of the word.)

Moins d’Europe
It didn’t take long for the gears to spin in Brussels. Jean-Claude Juncker, the hapless president of the European Commission, jumped before he was pushed; his appeal to French voters not to kill “our beautiful Europe” was ridiculed. A leaked paper from Wolfgang Schäuble’s finance ministry in Germany became the template for a radically stripped-down commission, proposing the removal of its competition and fiscal-scrutiny powers. At an emergency summit Mr Juncker’s rapidly shrinking job was handed to Donald Tusk, who chaired the summits of EU leaders.

But events were moving quickly. The unbowed Ms Le Pen and Nigel Farage, a British Eurosceptic, toured Europe stirring up nationalists at vast “Patriotic spring” rallies. Pressure for referendums was growing in the Netherlands and Denmark. In Spain and Portugal and most of eastern Europe there was little appetite for destruction but scarce will to stem the bleeding. Left-wing parties began to lose faith in the EU; one oddball outfit in Romania even campaigned for “socialism in one country”. From free movement to fishing quotas, governments began openly defying EU law, eating away at the commission’s authority.

Perhaps most worrying was the decay in the EU’s influence abroad. With the prospect of membership now all but dead, Serbia’s voters turned to the pro-Russia Radicals. Bosnia began to fray. Ukraine, despite the best efforts of a despairing Mr Tusk, drifted further from the EU into corruption and misrule. Putting a brave face on things, Mr Sarkozy visited Britain to sign a naval co-operation deal. But his trip was cut short when he was called home to deal with an emergency. An explosion had taken place near Nantes, and it did not appear to be an accident.

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