The French identify as Europeans – and yet are also notoriously Eurosceptic

In less than two months, more than 400 million people will be eligible to vote in the European elections. If the record turnout of 2019 elections is anything to go by, many will be seizing their voting rights, allowing policy-makers to take the pulse of the continent’s politics as the far right continues to spread.

In the meantime, research can help us gauge Europeans’ feelings toward the European Union. A political scientist at Sciences Po Grenoble, I pored over the available data to find out what exactly my fellow citizens thought of the bloc.

The French’s growing suspicion toward Europe

If there is one takeaway from the 2023 Eurobarometer, it’s that the French no longer trust the Union. In the spring of 2023, only 34% had confidence in the EU, compared with 47% of Europeans. 48% say they are very pessimistic about the future of the Union, the highest percentage of the 27-country bloc. The French are also the most likely to rate the Union’s economy as poor (52% compared with an average 44% in Europe). Only 35% consider the €800 billion European economic recovery plan, NextGenerationEU, to be efficient, while 38% see it as inefficient. That said, 69% also judge the national economy as poor, and 46% feel that their living standards have got worse over the last 12 months. We can therefore explain these unfavourable figures both on the grounds of the French’s particular mistrust of Europe, but also of a rising general pessimism toward public institutions and policies.

Fair-weather friends

It’s worth going back in time to understand how the French got here. In 1957, the Treaty of Rome was signed, creating an economic market and customs union between the six founding countries of Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Until the early 1990s, French public opinion backed the agreement, which was intended to prevent war between Europeans and build peace by accelerating the economic growth and development of the allied countries.

Such optimism was helped by the fact that European integration was still in its infancy. Although France’s political elites greatly contributed to the fledging Union, it was not a major political issue. Public opinion left it to the elites, who first built a common agricultural policy and then developed initiatives in many other areas. Until the late 1980s, academics described this attitude as a “permissive consensus”.

During the 1970s, between 52% and 68% of French people questioned in the Eurobarometer surveys believed France’s membership of the European Union to be “a good thing”. Such strong support continued to rise in the early 1980s, reaching its peak in the autumn of 1987 (74%), when the Commission was chaired by one of the bloc’s founding fathers, Jacques Delors, and the Single European Act was adopted to boost the integration of member countries.

We have also been able to show that support for European integration was slightly stronger in times of economic prosperity and slightly weaker in times of economic crisis. European aspirations develop when the economy is doing well, both in France and in other countries. On the other hand, as soon as economies enter into choppy waters, there is a temptation for the nation states to withdraw. In short, citizens did not look up to the Union as a fix to the economy’s ups and downs. The situation may well have changed since then, after the Covid pandemic and the war in Ukraine showed that the Union can come to the rescue.

A turning point in the 1990s

Following on from the Single European Act, in 1992 the Maastricht Treaty puts European integration into practice across 17 areas policy areas. It carves out the principle of a future common currency as well as more integrated foreign and security policy. European citizenship is also introduced. Observers expected the treaty to be ratified fairly easily. But this was not the case. In June 1992, the treaty is approved in the French referendum by a very thin margin: with a relatively low abstention rate of 31.3% of registered voters, only 51% of French people vote yes, after an intense campaign in which the yes side lost a lot of ground, the referendum becoming in part a choice for or against President François Mitterrand. 60% of the working classes rejected it, while managers were largely in favour. This social divide is fairly constant, showing that the Union makes more sense to elites than to the working classes.

In the 1990s, the European question becomes increasingly politicised, as Euroscepticism took root. The majority of French people do not want France to leave the EU. However, they are sceptical of its policies and its mode of operation, with decisions that necessarily take a long time to adopt and a Brussels technocracy that exasperates many of the professionals who have to submit to it. Confidence in the European Union is often in the minority in half-yearly Eurobarometer surveys.

In 2004, the Union agrees to take in eight Eastern European countries, plus Cyprus and Malta. To adapt the bloc’s rules to this major change, the European Commission, parliament and heads of state negotiate a new treaty for the Constitution for Europe – a term that brings to mind the founding of a state.

The French’s European heart – and critical mind toward the EU

A new referendum is held in 2005 to ratify it. To many observers’ astonishment, the “No” wins at 54.7%, with only 30.7% of voters abstaining. The pre-election polls had given the “Yes” side a majority of at least 60% of the vote. Like in 1992, the campaign whipped up many fears. Some on the left argued the text would bring in deregulation and called for a far more social Europe, while a (small) section of the right criticised the loss of national sovereignty and the possible entry of Turkey into the Union. The results showed the gap between the electorate and a political class that is very broadly in favour of stronger European institutions, since more than 90% of French MPs had approved the text a few months earlier.

Since then, while the French remain attached to the existence of the EU, they are often very negative about the policies put in place. In 2019, 65% said that the Union was not working effectively. In the latest Eurobarometer, in autumn 2023, 55% said they were attached to the EU and 62% felt they were European citizens. 38% have a positive image of the EU (28% have a negative image) and 36% are unable to say where they stand, showing that the bloc’s image is still rather blurry among citizens. The distinction between a generally pro-European feeling of belonging and a much more critical perception of European policy still defines the French’s relationship with the EU. Only 45% are satisfied with the way democracy works in the EU, and only 35% say they trust it, against 55% who don’t.

However, there is a paradox: between 60 and 77% of the French say they are in favour of common public policies on defence and security, energy, common trade policy, migration, health and a common foreign policy. The demand for Europe is strong, but the policies being pursued are not satisfactory, and many would like to see national sovereignty better preserved. In 2022, 58% of French people felt that “Our country’s decision-making powers must be strengthened, even if this means limiting those of Europe”.

Source: European Politics -

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