Whether or not it feels the populist bite, France is, over the coming months, set to pay host to a battle which will define the direction of post-Brexit Europe. Whomever wins the presidency there in May will inherit that most paradoxical among the world’s powers, a nation-state that simultaneously claims regional leadership whilst lagging grievously behind its neighbours. The picture, as it emerges, is looking patently grim.
President François Hollande, elected four years ago on the back of crowd-pleasing, anti-business platitudes, has seen his approval ratings plummet to breathtaking lows in the face of public spending crackdowns, labour ‘reforms’ and the militarisation of French daily life. His cohorts in the Socialist Party have defended his legacy to a man; François Fillon, an ex-Prime Minister and this year’s electoral front-runner, has, meanwhile, united Hollande’s opponents around a program that is almost comic in its Thatcherite proportions (including a pledge to sack 500,000 civil servants). Altogether, there is a palpable sense of apocalypticism in the air, and that’s before one has even accounted for the terror threat and the reactionary Marine Le Pen’s underdog potential.
Such a state of affairs is at odds with France’s late-20th Century standing as a European hegemon, now in tatters – French capitalism, a meagre, bloated shadow of its former self, bears more in common with that of Greece than Britain or Germany. Whereas Britain endured a trying and uneven postwar recovery, the French recall their Trente Glorieuses (‘glorious thirty’) with longing and nostalgia; Paris’ advent as the continent’s financial heartland, coupled with explosive growth and spurts of urbanisation, secured for the Republic regional leadership, institutionalised in the form of the EU’s forebear, the EEC. Although this dominance had receded by 1990, the reunification of Germany marked a watershed moment, bringing national anxieties to a head – President Mitterrand reportedly feared nothing less than a Fourth Reich.
The reality of the EU is, of course, something short of Mitterrand’s nightmares, but Brexit raises a prospect that would no doubt leave the late statesman turning in his grave. For years, the UK provided within the EU both a counterweight to German power and a check upon the protectionist ambitions of Paris and Warsaw; its absence shatters the accord its presence formerly afforded the Union. The united front European leaders have sought to present against Brexit of late is, alas, a ruse, masking divisions that will soon come to define the European project.
In keeping with global standards, the French economy has failed to mount anything close to a return to the stability of the pre-2008 cycle. Unique among Western European countries, youth unemployment stands at around 25%; the Hollande administration has totally abandoned its populist pretences in favour of a ‘pro-market’ line every bit as crude and aimless as its prior strategy. Foreign observers charge France with having failed to come to terms with a globalised world, casting its exhaustion as analogous with that of the Anglophone world in the volatile 1970s, but this is a bogus, opportunistic equivalence – with its EU-supervised austerity regime and ruinous sovereign debt, the French case exemplifies the contradictions of neoliberalism more starkly than any other developed nation.
The grotesque dimensions of 2017’s presidential race (Fillon’s ‘social Gaullism’ versus the crass nativism of Le Pen) owe themselves as much to a French national reckoning as the wider populist wave presently sweeping the West. With Britain’s financial base in peril, the axis of power in Europe has shifted quite decisively to Germany, and it is likely that the next occupant of the Élysée will be seen to take a tough, souverainiste line against its neighbour’s internationalist designs – such is the prevalence of this theme that even Nicolas Sarkozy, previously known for his pro-integration advocacy, was forced to incorporate it into his ill-fated 2017 bid. France must now face up to its position in the EU post-Brexit; although it may well fill the UK’s vacated boots for a short period of time, its constituted interests will prove, in the long run, directly antithetical to those of its partners.
That is not to say that a Frexit, the staple of any English-language commentary in the wake of 2016’s shocks, is necessarily imminent – even Le Pen has backed down her pitch to such an effect. The upcoming election does, however, hint at future wrangling within the European establishment of the sort thought previously unthinkable, frighteningly reminiscent of the brinkmanship which characterised the UK’s membership. Brexit has opened long-festering political wounds on the continent, and its liberals will struggle to stitch them up again.