Many Eurocrats will be breathing a sigh of relief today. With the independent centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron coming top in the first round of the French Presidential elections, he is surely on course to beat the EU-hating Marine Le Pen, the National Front leader, by a clear margin in the second round.
The EU bigwigs have therefore concluded that the proposal for Frexit – the departure of France from the European Union, following the example of Brexit – is not a threat.
But while they are likely to be right about Macron winning on May 7, they are quite wrong about Frexit. I think support for Frexit will grow. The demands have only just started.
Rather than seeking to accommodate such concerns, European Union commissioners will probably respond with their usual contempt. They will press on with their warped and discredited vision of a European State. They will spend more money and impose more rules. Part of the reason for this is to give themselves yet more power and status. But at its heart, it also has a hostility to the nation state: instead of a Europe of the nations, the mission is to build a homogenised, identikit Europe.
The contradiction is that the faster the EU presses on with its warped project, the stronger the opposition to it will grow and the greater the demand for a breakaway will become.
The growth in support for the National Front is one measure of that. In 2002, the party’s then-leader, Marine’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, only got 17.8 per cent of the vote. Yet the recent spate of terror attacks in France has caused quite legitimate concern in the country and almost certainly accounts for the rise in the National Front’s popularity. Many want the country to have control of its own borders again so it can improve security – something that is incompatible with EU membership.
However, the National Front’s vote share is not the only measure – or even the best one – when it comes to Frexit’s prospects.
According to recent Pew Research, 61 per cent of French people have an unfavourable view of the EU. A sizeable 39 per cent want some powers restored to national Government – 21 per cent want the division to remain the same and 34 per cent wanted more power handed over to the EU.
Another poll, for TNS, found that 45 per cent would choose to remain in the European Union and 33 per cent would back Frexit.
True, there is not yet a majority for Frexit, but we can see strong and growing Euroscepticism in France – and it comes from Socialists and Conservatives as well as National Front supporters.
On this basis, even if Le Pen were to win the Presidency next month, Frexit would not be a given.
Under Article 89 of the European Union Treaty, such a proposal must come from the government, not the president. Both the upper and the lower houses would therefore need to approve a referendum (or agree it by a majority of 60 per cent of Congress). So gaining a Frexit majority in France’s June legislative elections is required, and that was never likely this year.
The more relevant consideration is what the future will bring. What will happen when the United Kingdom is shown to prosper as an independent nation while the EU meddles evermore in France’s daily life?
Once there is a majority for Frexit among the people, the pressure for a referendum from the mainstream parties will surely become extremely hard to resist.
There are plenty of Frexit supporters who could never bring themselves to vote for the National Front. Calling it a fascist party may be unfair (there is no evidence that a National Front government would imprison political opponents or overthrow democracy and the rule of law) but the racist and anti-semitic labels it attracts are, I’m afraid, undeniable.
Furthermore, the NF’s extreme socialist economic programme would mean more of same disastrous medicine for France where high taxation and regulation has already resulted in unemployment at more than double the rate in the UK. (This is despite the National Front being given a confusing “far right label”.)
You could say that Frexit will eventually happen, regardless of the NF, because it represents a vision of an outward looking France trading with the world – pretty much the opposite to Marine Le Pen’s isolationist, protectionist message.
The arrogance of the EU, and its insistence on taking voters for granted, will be its undoing. Petulant Eurocrats underestimated the British electorate. They underestimate the French at their peril.