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French public mood turns sour towards EU

Ben McPartland · 14 May 2013, 14:23

Published: 14 May 2013 14:23 GMT+02:00

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French support for Europe and EU integration has taken a big hit over the last year as the country’s economy has ground to a halt and unemployment has reached record levels.

According to a new study from the Pew Research Centre entitled "A European Malaise", the attitude of the French towards the EU has darkened more than in any other of the big member states, including traditionally eurosceptic Britain.

Although pro-EU feelings are dwindling right across Europe, attitudes are changing more quickly and drastically in France than anywhere else.

“No European country is becoming more dispirited and disillusioned faster than France. In just the past year, the public mood has soured dramatically across the board,” Pew Research's study concluded.

For some experts the negative attitude among the French towards Europe is not a big surprise.

"The French attitude towards the EU has been heading this way for the last 10 years. They have been under pressure to follow a German economic model that they don't want to imitate," Ulrike Guerot, from the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) told The Local.

"The centre of Europe has shifted towards Germany in recent years and the French felt like the Germans had all the advantages, like cheap labour around the corner. They had a moment of sulking and they are still there.

"France is a special country in terms of culture and traditions. Other European countries have adapted more quickly to globalisation whereas France is still battling to keep its social and economic culture.

"There is also this feeling of being a 'Grand Nation' which countries like Italy and Spain do not have," Guerot added.

And the reasons for the dramatic cooling in the relationship between the French and the EU?

Chiefly the state of the French economy, seen by the fact that 91 percent say it is struggling, up 10 percentage points since 2012.

The French are also negative about their leader, with 67 percent believing President François Hollande is doing a poor job at managing the country and the problems posed by the financial crisis.

Worryingly for Hollande, that 67 percent figure is 24 percentage points higher than it was for his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012.

And the French clearly no longer see Europe as the answer to their woes, with 77 percent believing European economic integration has made things worse for the country – an increase of 14 points on last year.

According to the poll, as many as 58 percent of the French now have a bad impression of the European Union as an institution – which is an 18 point rise from 2012.

Story continues below…

What stands out about French attitudes towards Europe is the contrast to those of their neighbours in Germany, which is the only country in which at least half of the public agree to giving more powers to Brussels.

In fact, the French public’s view of the EU is now more aligned with that of southern European countries like Spain and Italy than Europe’s powerhouse Germany.

“The French share similar worries about inflation and unemployment with the Spanish, the Italians and the Greeks at levels of concern not held by the Germans,” the Pew Research report concluded.

With negativity clearly on the increase could we see France one day holding a referendum on leaving the EU, as has been proposed in Britain.

"France is always good for a surprise," said ECFR's Guerot. "And its political system is more fragmented than in other countries,"  "You have the populism of the far right's Le Pen and the left's Jean-Luc Melenchon. The opposition UMP is in free fall and the Socialists cannot get their act together. This is all part of France's problem."

Ben McPartland (ben.mcpartland@thelocal.com)

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