Frexit Imminent?

By, Desmond Molloy SAR ’19

 

Not even the most generous observer would say that French President Francois Hollande is having a successful presidency. Since taking office in 2012, the 62-year old Socialist has struggled to revive his country’s stagnant economy, which has never truly recovered from the financial and eurozone crises. Hollande initially embraced his party’s traditional, statist approach to growth, vowing to impose a “supertax” of 75% on the country’s top earners (1). Later, he took a different approach, proposing and ultimately forcing through a plan to loosen labor market restrictions. While the French President hoped that the reform would increase hiring, he ended up antagonizing his own party’s left wing (2). Security also proved to be a problem. Hollande’s term has been marred by terrorism, with attacks on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, the Bataclan nightclub and a Bastille Day procession in Nice shaking the public’s confidence in his government (3). He provided steady leadership throughout a series of devastating Islamic State attacks in French cities, and worked to shore up weakened governments in Mali and the Central African Republic (4). But voters rarely decide on foreign and security policy alone, and Hollande ultimately sank to a 4% approval rating,  the lowest ever recorded for a French president (5). He announced late last year that he would not seek re-election this spring.

While Hollande seems weaker and more tired than ever, the race to succeed him is surprisingly energetic. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who was widely expected to take the Socialist mantle from Hollande, lost a presidential primary to the left-wing populist and former education minister Benoit Hamon (6). Valls is seen as an integral part of Hollande’s reforms, making him unpopular with the party’s base. But Hamon’s appeal may be limited; he is currently in fourth place, and will likely absorb some of the blame for Hollande’s failures. Many centrists have chosen to instead support 39-year old Emmanuel Macron, who abandoned the Hollande government and the Socialists late last year. Much like Hollande in his later years, Macron has tried to appeal to French centrists with a pro-business platform. On the right, the newly rebranded French Republican Party is being led by former Prime Minister Francois Fillon, who defeated frontrunner Alain Juppe for his party’s nomination. Fillon is one of the most conservative presidential contenders in postwar French history. In a country where politicians of all stripes have long supported a strong social safety net and extensive regulations, Fillon has vowed to overhaul government spending, asserting that the high unemployment rate and stagnant economy will not improve without a course correction in Paris. But financial misconduct is threatening to derail him. In a rare turn to investigate journalism, the satirical newspaper Canard Enchaine (The Chained Duck) recently revealed that while serving in the French Parliament, Fillon had paid his wife several thousand euros per year for nominal work. Leading daily Le Monde subsequently discovered that Fillon’s generosity with taxpayer money also extended to his children. A majority of voters are now calling on him to quit the race.

In a year where right-wing populism is on the upswing across the world, Fillon’s weakness may open the door to an unconventional candidate. Marine Le Pen, the leader of the Front Nationale (FN), led in the polls even before Fillon’s troubles, and would likely be able to absorb many of his supporters. Often compared to Donald Trump, Britain’s Nigel Farage and the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders, Le Pen is a strong critic of the European Union, and has pledged to hold a referendum on France’s EU membership if elected (7). Britain may have been the first country to exit the European Union, but France would be the first founding member, first eurozone member and first Schengen zone member to part ways with Brussels. While British governments and voters have always been at least a little leery of the European project, France was a founding member of both the European Coal and Steel Community and the European Economic Community, the EU’s predecessors. It remains one of the leading economies and most powerful voices on the continent. Observers worried about the fate of the EU will be watching France closely for the next three months.

 

  1. Pethokoukis, James. “The ever-so-brief life of France’s 75% supertax.” AEIdeas, January 5, 2015. Accessed February 6, 2017. http://www.aei.org/publication/ever-brief-life-frances-75-supertax/.
  2. Dempsey, Judy. “Judy Asks: Is It Possible to Reform France?” Strategic Europe, April 13, 2016. Accessed February 6, 2017. http://carnegieeurope.eu/strategiceurope/63314.
  3. Heisbourg, Francois. “Attack in Nice: The French response to terror remains muddled.” Financial Times, July 15, 2016. Accessed February 6, 2017. https://www.ft.com/content/b25fe8cc-4a6a-11e6-8d68-72e9211e86ab.
  4. J. Peter Pham. “Monsieur Hollande Goes to Africa.” The New Atlanticist, January 17, 2017. Accessed February 6, 2017. http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/monsieur-hollande-goes-to-africa.
  5. “Into the abyss.” The Economist, November 5, 2016. Accessed February 6, 2017. http://www.economist.com/news/europe/21709508-fran-ois-hollandes-approval-falls-4-abyss.
  6. Llana, Sara Miller. “Underdogs complete sweep of French primaries, upending presidential race.” The Christian Science Monitor, January 30, 2017. Accessed February 6, 2017. http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Europe/2017/0130/Underdogs-complete-sweep-of-French-primaries-upending-presidential-race.
  7. Legrain, Philippe. “Three Paths to European Disintegration.” Project Syndicate. August 9, 2016. Accessed February 6, 2017. https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/brexit-european-union-disintegration-by-philippe-legrain-2016-08.

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