French public mood turns sour towards EU

The mood of the French public towards the EU has soured dramatically in recent months, results of a new poll revealed on Tuesday. In fact, the French are growing more negative towards Europe than citizens of any other of the big member states.

French public mood turns sour towards EU
France and Europe - no longer best of friends. Photo: Simone Ramellla

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.

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."

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The Euro celebrates its 20th anniversary

The euro on Saturday marked 20 years since people began to use the single European currency, overcoming initial doubts, price concerns and a debt crisis to spread across the region.

The Euro celebrates its 20th anniversary
The Euro is projected onto the walls of the European Central Bank in Brussels. Photo: Daniel Rolund/AFP

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen called the euro “a true symbol for the strength of Europe” while European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde described it as “a beacon of stability and solidity around the world”.

Euro banknotes and coins came into circulation in 12 countries on January 1, 2002, greeted by a mix of enthusiasm and scepticism from citizens who had to trade in their Deutsche marks, French francs, pesetas and liras.

The euro is now used by 340 million people in 19 nations, from Ireland to Germany to Slovakia. Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania are next in line to join the eurozone — though people are divided over the benefits of abandoning their national currencies.

European Council President Charles Michel argued it was necessary to leverage the euro to back up the EU’s goals of fighting climate change and leading on digital innovation. He added that it was “vital” work on a banking union and a capital markets
union be completed.

The idea of creating the euro first emerged in the 1970s as a way to deepen European integration, make trade simpler between member nations and give the continent a currency to compete with the mighty US dollar.

Officials credit the euro with helping Europe avoid economic catastrophe during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Clearly, Europe and the euro have become inseparable,” Lagarde wrote in a blog post. “For young Europeans… it must be almost impossible to imagine Europe without it.”

In the euro’s initial days, consumers were concerned it caused prices to rise as countries converted to the new currency. Though some products — such as coffee at cafes — slightly increased as businesses rounded up their conversions, official statistics have shown that the euro has brought more stable inflation.

Dearer goods have not increased in price, and even dropped in some cases. Nevertheless, the belief that the euro has made everything more expensive persists.

New look

The red, blue and orange banknotes were designed to look the same everywhere, with illustrations of generic Gothic, Romanesque and Renaissance architecture to ensure no country was represented over the others.

In December, the ECB said the bills were ready for a makeover, announcing a design and consultation process with help from the public. A decision is expected in 2024.

“After 20 years, it’s time to review the look of our banknotes to make them more relatable to Europeans of all ages and backgrounds,” Lagarde said.

Euro banknotes are “here to stay”, she said, although the ECB is also considering creating a digital euro in step with other central banks around the globe.

While the dollar still reigns supreme across the globe, the euro is now the world’s second most-used currency, accounting for 20 percent of global foreign exchange reserves compared to 60 percent for the US greenback.

Von der Leyen, in a video statement, said: “We are the biggest player in the world trade and nearly half of this trade takes place in euros.”

‘Valuable lessons’

The eurozone faced an existential threat a decade ago when it was rocked by a debt crisis that began in Greece and spread to other countries. Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Cyprus were saved through bailouts in return for austerity measures, and the euro stepped back from the brink.

Members of the Eurogroup of finance ministers said in a joint article they learned “valuable lessons” from that experience that enabled their euro-using nations to swiftly respond to fall-out from the coronavirus pandemic.

As the Covid crisis savaged economies, EU countries rolled out huge stimulus programmes while the ECB deployed a huge bond-buying scheme to keep borrowing costs low.

Yanis Varoufakis, now leader of the DiEM 25 party who resigned as Greek finance minister during the debt crisis, remains a sharp critic of the euro. Varoufakis told the Democracy in Europe Movement 25 website that the euro may seem to make sense in calm periods because borrowing costs are lower and there are no exchange rates.

But retaining a nation’s currency is like “automobile assurance,” he said, as people do not know its value until there is a road accident. In fact, he charged, the euro increases the risk of having an accident.