The election that will impact Brexit negotiations the most is without doubt the French presidential election, which is taking place in May. France, which has the second largest economy and the most powerful army of the EU shares the leadership of the bloc with its close ally Germany. Let us not forget that the head of the negotiations appointed by the European Commission is the famous French civil servant Michel Barnier. What is the position of President Francois Hollande on the Brexit negotiations? France, whose economic ties with Britain which are much less important than Germany’s, would be much less affected if a punitive deal were given to Britain. This is why Hollande is said to favour a stricter stance on negotiations than Merkel, in order to maintain to stability of the bloc. The socialist president wants to show how costly exiting the EU could be, not only to other countries, but also to the French electorate: most analysts agree that one of the goals of Hollande’s strict Brexit stance is to discourage the French electorate from voting for the Eurosceptic populist Marine Le Pen, who is the favourite in the first round of the elections.
The French election includes two rounds: the first round has many candidates, then the two candidates with the best scores qualify for the second and final round. Marine Le Pen is predicted to qualify for the second round but then be widely defeated by either Francois Fillon (the centre-right candidate) or Emmanuel Macron (the former economy minister under Hollande who defected to create a new centrist, modernising movement called “En Marche”). Let us look at the different possible scenarios.
The first is a Le Pen victory, which is very unlikely according to polls. However, in this era of populist insurgency, polls have been proven wrong more than once. One of the most important promises of the National Front (Le Pen’s party) is to leave the EU and the euro. One might disagree with Le Pen’s controversial positions on economics, immigration and Islam or be repulsed by the National Front’s past (especially by Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father and the founder of the FN, infamous for his anti-Semitic comments). However, no one could deny that the victory of Le Pen, a cheerleader for Brexit, would greatly serve British interests: the departure of a founding member of the EU and one which has the bloc’s most powerful military and diplomatic influence in addition to its second largest economy would sharply weaken it, or even destroy it. This means the 27 would be severely weakened and would be forced to give an advantageous deal to Britain.
The other scenario would be a victory for Francois Fillon, the candidate of the centre-right party. Francois Fillon surprisingly won the conservative primaries on a solid conservative program in contrast with his moderate rival Alain Juppe. One of his core promises was a Thatcherite economic programme, and he actively praised the British model in contrast with that of France. Moreover, he is known to be an Anglophile, a fluent English speaker and for having a British wife. All these factors contribute, according to analysts, to Fillon having softer stance on Brexit negotiations than the Socialist Party in power. He is also, unlike Alain Juppe, a staunch critic of European federalism, and is in favour of a EU that looks more like the “Europe of nations” de Gaulle wanted; for him, the Brexit vote is the symptom of a broken EU that needs deep reforms. Even though he called for a friendly agreement with Britain, he also affirmed the UK shouldn’t keep its passport to sell financial services across the EU. Fillon looks like a better alternative for Britain than the current Socialist Party (which is very unpopular and whose candidate is in fourth place, according to polls) or Emmanuel Macron (who is now neck-and-neck with Fillon).
Who is Emmanuel Macron, the young leader of the “En Marche” movement? Macron started his career as civil servant after graduating from the Ecole nationale d’administration, an elite university. He then worked as an investment banker while staying close to the Socialist Party. After Hollande became president, Macron joined his team as an advisor. Later on, he was appointed economy minister by Hollande and advocated more reformist free-market “Blairite” policies. Pushed by his high approval ratings, he left the government, launched a new reformist, centrist political movement and launched his bid for the presidency. Gaining a large base of supporters by promising a new way of doing politics and bashing the old political class, on both the left and right, he polled third in front of his old party and behind Le Pen and Fillon for a long time. However, after revelations in the last two weeks about a financial scandal affecting Fillon, the gap between them closed sharply, with some polls putting Macron in front of Fillon and winning against Le Pen. Macron is a staunch Europhile; he thus supports an unfavourable deal for Britain.
To sum up, this election is one of the most uncertain in France since the Second World War at least, especially after the revelations about Fillon, who just three weeks ago was, according to polls, the favourite and was predicted to win comfortably. The election is also one of the crucial factors that will have an impact Britain’s deal with the EU and in the mean time will greatly contribute to political uncertainty.
by Mark Koussa, Social Outreach Officer of UCLU Conservative Society 2016-17