Lukewarm on Europe, France ponders its candidates for the top EU jobs


Picture of Michel Mangenot
Michel Mangenot

Professeur at l'Institut d'Etudes Européennes (IEE) of l'Université Paris

France has been the driving force behind most of the European project’s breakthroughs, but it must also bear responsibility for setbacks and for periods of paralysis, such as the European Defence Community’s failure in 1954, the empty chair crisis of 1965 and the Constitutional treaty debacle in 2005. French policymakers view the EU as a multiplier of French power, yet there are times when the EU does not reflect French interests or ambitions, and that is happening more and more often.

Two leaders have left their mark on France’s European policy: Charles de Gaulle and François Mitterrand. François Hollande’s approach is informed by both of their legacies. He is more of a Mitterrandian on the domestic scene in France, but he has no qualms about returning to the core tenets of Gaullism in matters of foreign policy and military intervention overseas. As a Delorian – he was president of Jacques Delors’s think tank Club Témoin in the 1990s – Hollande supports the EU, but he is far from being an enthusiastic Europhile. The unity of the Socialist Party (PS) was his foremost concern when he strove to reconcile the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ camps in the 2005 referendum, although unlike the country at large, PS members mostly supported the Constitution.

As an intergovernmentalist – like all French presidents since de Gaulle – Hollande followed up his election victory in 2012 by meeting European Council president Herman Van Rompuy before the Commission’s chief, José Manuel Barroso. And Hollande’s lack of enthusiasm for the EU institutions is reflected by his own governmental team. Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault is a German speaker, and well liked in Germany for that, but because Hollande didn’t follow up on Jacques Delors’ advice that he should create a vice-prime ministerial post in charge of European policy, the EU remains a contentious issue between senior ministers.

Foreign minister Laurent Fabius is highly experienced, but lacks credibility at EU level because of his strong opposition to the Constitutional treaty back in 2005. And the president’s inner circle at the Elysée Palace is also riven by friction between diplomats and economists. The two main issues on France’s European agenda are the European elections and the political profile of the incoming heads of the EU institutions. On the first, the government is particularly afraid of the protest vote that could see a major triumph for the anti-EU Front National led by Marine Le Pen, while the main opposition party, the centre-right UMP, also risks serious setbacks.

A burning question in France is who the Elysée will choose as France’s new European Commission member or president. The line-up includes finance minister Pierre Moscovici, who is rumoured to be looking for an exit from government, and Pascal Lamy, who recently stepped down as head of the Geneva-based Word Trade Organisation (WTO) and as a former Commissioner would only return to Brussels as the Commission president. Lamy was once chief of staff to Delors, but has never served as a minister or even been elected before, and that’s now a condition for getting the top job. Other contenders could be Jean-Pierre Jouyet, Hollande’s friend and ENA classmate, who served as secretary of state for EU affairs under Nicolas Sarkozy. Then there’s France present Commissioner, Michel Barnier, who sees himself as a right-wing Delors, and could be a better fit with the future European Parliament majority, but would have to be nominated by a left-wing president.

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