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Post-Brexit: Could it benefit France to see the UK suffer?
Will Hollande benefit from the mess left behind by Cameron. Photo: AFP

Post-Brexit: Could it benefit France to see the UK suffer?

Ben McPartland · 29 Jun 2016, 12:57

Published: 29 Jun 2016 12:57 GMT+02:00

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While speculation about how France could gain from Britain leaving the EU remains theoretical, one of the more certain impacts of the shock Brexit vote in the UK was the expected boost it would give the anti-EU populist movement in the country.

Within hours of the result being announced on Friday morning, Marine Le Pen, France’s chief Eurosceptic and arch-enemy of the EU was hailing the victory of the Out campaign.

Le Pen, who once said she wanted to “explode the EU”, did as everyone expected and immediately called for a similar referendum in France.

She has repeatedly made similar calls in the past, but boosted by the UK’s rejection of the EU, Le Pen and France’s other eurosceptics could really start contemplating the idea of “Frexit”.

Except what’s happened since Friday may have taken the wind out of the sails of France's anti-EU movement.

'If  that's what Frexit would look like, no thanks'

With Britain seemingly in political, economic and social chaos that has no quick fix, Le Pen might find the idea of Frexit much harder to sell the longer the UK suffers.

For the likes of President François Hollande and his rival Nicolas Sarkozy, both of whom are expected to be presidential candidates for the 2017 election, seeing the UK in turmoil in post-Brexit referendum may be the best way of silencing Le Pen, who like the UKIP leader Nigel Farage has blamed Brussels for much of France's ills.

Le Pen's influence has grown in recent years to the point where her party picked up 7 million votes in the regional elections and she is almost considered a certainty to make the second round of  the presidential election, at the expense of one of the mainstream candidates - possibly François Hollande.

“For pro-EU centrists in France the Brexit fallout will certainly help in dampening down criticism of Europe,” Philippe Marliere, professor of French and European politics at London’s UCL university told The Local.

“People will think ‘if that’s what Frexit will look like then we don’t want that, thank you very much,” he said.

“If it turned into a fiasco, with the British economy in recession and the dismantling of the United Kingdom, it would clearly make people in France think twice [about leaving the EU]."

But Marliere added that it’s too early to say what the impact will be, plus the demise of Britain would have to be quite spectacular, with “the UK going back to the 1970s” for it to wipe out the growing mistrust that exists in France towards the EU.

“It would need to be pretty bad to kill off the debate in France,” Marliere said.

'There would be major consequences for the French economy too'

French economist Eric Heyer said Hollande and co  would not be able to revel in the UK’s economic turmoil given the fallout from the referendum will badly hit France's own economy - which the president needs to turn around if he wants to have any hope of being re-elected.

“There will also be consequences on the French economy and no one here wants a new financial crisis,” Heyer told The Local.

“That’s why you can understand the French president asking the UK to clarify things as soon as possible,” Heyer said.

If the uncertainty drags on, Heyer says, it could be dangerous for France.

"The position of France is to say 'OK the British people have chosen, not the authorities must act on it, not to make the UK pay for leaving the EU."

Given the importance of trade and economic relations, it would be of more benefit to France if the good ship UK can weather the storm without too much damage.

Opinion polls suggest more support for the EU

Story continues below…

But an opinion poll published in France on Wednesday suggested the chaos in the UK might already have had an impact.

Some 45 percent of those canvassed said they were now in favour of having a similar referendum, down from 53 percent in a similar poll carried out before the referendum.

And tellingly some 45 percent said they would favour remaining in the EU, up slightly from 44 percent pre-referendum, compared to 33 percent who want out.

Pro-Frexit politicians in France will clearly be hoping the UK economy recovers if they want any chance of forcing France out of the EU too.

Speaking to The Local before the referendum presidential candidate and MP Nicolas Dupont-Aignan from the sovereigntist movement, "France Arise" movement said: "The French will be able to see that the UK will not be hit by catastrophe once it leaves the EU. It won’t be the apocalypse."

Not yet, but with no captain to steer the battered ship, many in the UK fear things will get worse before they get better.

Whatever happens in the UK the key point is that in France there is no sign of Hollande, Sarkozy or any other mainstream politician being willing to take the kind of gamble David Cameron took, by offering a referendum in the hope of winning a domestic election.

Ben McPartland (ben.mcpartland@thelocal.com)

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