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Is France really a nation of Eurosceptics?

Joshua Melvin · 2 May 2014, 10:37

Published: 02 Apr 2014 10:37 GMT+02:00
Updated: 02 May 2014 10:37 GMT+02:00

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With European parliament elections just weeks away the French may be having a British moment.

A poll commissioned by French daily Le Figaro recently found that only 44 percent of the French people think the European Union is good for their country, which appears at a first sight a dizzying plummet in one of the Union’s founders and an arch promoter of the project.

But the apparent turning of the tide against the EU has been growing for some time. A study last year showed the French public were rapidly falling out of love with Brussels. What was perhaps most alarming was that the widespread disaffection with the union was spreading quicker in France than in any other country on the continent.

'No European country is more disillusioned than France'

“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.

Like in many European countries, the public have been turned off the EU in part thanks to the economic woes and failure to reignite the economy which many blame on Brussels.

The fact the anti-EU National Front party, whose leader wants to "explode" the EU, is predicted to the big winners in next month's Euro elections is perhaps a barometer of the feeling in France towards Brussels.

But are the French really anti-EU and why? 

As The Local hit the streets of Paris to find out, there were some who were eager to point the finger of blame at Brussels.

“No, I don’t think the European Union is good for France. We are in a financial crisis and it is certainly related to our membership of the EU,” said Sandy Figueiredo, 22, a student. “My opinion of it has grown worse in the last five years because the older you get the more you feel the impact of the bad economy.”

However, it became clear from those we spoke to, that anti-EU sentiment may be exagerated, at least in the French capital.

Many Parisians we spoke to expressed support for Brussels and almost entirely for economic reasons. Some also cited the benefits of having a block of nations that could balance out the creeping influence of certain international powers.

“It’s always better to have numbers, to not be alone. It’s mostly economic, though,” said Olivier Desvouges, 53, an executive with the national health system. “There are structures in place that oblige us to work together.”

Non-profit youth worker Jeff Sakho, 27, agreed, saying: “[The EU] makes us stronger. It is a check on the power of other nations like the United States. We are more powerful together.”

'No one understands the European Union'

But scratching beneath the general sense that the idea of Europe is good, we found many were baffled by what the 766 deputies in Brussels at the European Parliament are actually doing.  

“Yes, it’s an economic strength and a guarantor of peace between nations. The problem is that no one understands the European Union. What does it do? It’s pretty unclear for most people,” said Bruno Gerbal, 35, a teacher.

That lack of clarity about what is being done with billions of eurosof taxpayer  money in Brussels has not engendered much trust among some of those who count themselves as supporters of the Union.

“I am more aware of the presence of lobbying in the European Union now than I was five years ago. There is more lobbying going on than before. And it’s not a good influence,” said Cyndie Cantin, 27, a lawyer. “It’s a question of transparency.”

The negativity gnawing at the edges of the idea of the EU has not gone unnoticed by the people we spoke to. Several said the sentiment in their family or neighborhood has turned increasingly against Europe.

The anti-EU argument has power over people

One of the symptoms of this shift in beliefs was the far-right National Front’s historic results in the March local elections, in which it captured some 1,200 council seats and 11 mayorships.

“I hear more and more people saying that Europe is a bad thing for France. They think it’s hurting the French economy, they think it’s the EU’s fault”, said Abdekader Marsi, 34, a telecom technician.

Martin Thyss, 26, a lawyer, echoed those ideas: “I think the anti-EU argument has a lot of power over people, especially now. But it’s too simple, it’s too easy to say everything is the EU’s fault. And ultimately it’s not true.”

Story continues below…

Those arguments may help the far-right do quite well in the European elections as well. A French exasperation over the beleagured economy and ongoing political scandals was believed to have been behind the dismal, by France’s standards, 61.5 percent turnout in March's local elections.

'I won't be voting'

That turnout was in turn cited as favoring the far-right. If our informal poll is any indication, voter mobilization won’t be much better for the European elections.

Half of the eight people who talked to The Local said they weren’t going to vote, with two of them citing disillusionment and disgust with French politics.

“I’m not going to vote because I don’t believe in politics anymore. It’s not just the EU,” said the Bruno Gerbal, a teacher.

But the other half of those interviewed said they were going to the polls and considered it their duty. Fabienne Jeanne, 45, a teacher said, “Yes, I’m going to vote. Why? To prevent fascism from gaining any more power.”

Joshua Melvin (joshua.melvin@thelocal.com)

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