Last Friday I had dinner with a friend from the French Embassy. He and his wife came hotfoot from a reception at the ambassador’s residence in Kensington Park Gardens after what must have been a busy day for Embassy staff. It is hard to over-emphasise the professionalism of such people and their commitment to improving and facilitating Franco-British relations. The Embassy line was that what had happened at the European Union summit should not be over-dramatised and should not be allowed to cause a lasting rift between our two countries. For this they deserve a lot of credit and thanks.
Looking at the French press on Saturday, the mood was less charitable and even writers in Le Monde were casting doubt as to whether the United Kingdom should be allowed to stay in the EU. Of course, here one has to wonder whether these journalists have any historical memory at all. Have they forgotten that, under General de Gaulle, the French withdraw from all EU discussions for six months because they could not get what they wanted? Have they forgotten that it was the French electorate which scuppered the proposed European constitution in a referendum only a few years ago?
Let this pass however. Of greater interest is the context in which President Sarkozy has been manoeuvring over the last few months and weeks. First, let’s remember that Monsieur Sarkozy faces a Presidential election next April. An opinion poll published last Tuesday indicated that only 25.5% of the French electorate intend to give him their vote. This is up by 4% points since the beginning of October but it is still far short of what he would need to win. Marine Le Pen, the Front national candidate, stands at 18%. The socialist party candidate, François Hollande, is predicted to get 60% of the vote in the all-important second ballot. The same poll indicated that only 19% of the electorate supported the budgetary and fiscal policies of the government.
More intriguing were the results of another poll published earlier in the week concerning French attitudes to the single currency. If this indicated that 60% of the French electorate wanted France to stay in the Eurozone, it also indicated that 36% wanted to see a return to the franc. 38% believed that the Euro was a handicap for France’s foreign trade; 45%, that it was a handicap for the French economy in general; and 62% that it had reduced their purchasing power. Broken down by category, 65% of workers and 53% of employers wanted to see a return to the franc. You can probably guess who supported the Euro: the French equivalent of Guardian readers!
Nor is everybody happy with the fact that the French President is cosying up to Mrs Merkel. The previous week, for example, one of the leaders of the socialist party, Arnaud Montebourg, declared that “the question of German nationalism “was reappearing in the shape of the “Bismarkian policies pursued by Mrs Merkel”. A few days earlier, another socialist, Jean-Marie Le Guen, compared President Sarkozy to Edouard Daladier, the French premier who signed the Munich agreement!
These then are not easy times for the French President. Not only might the Euro come crashing to the ground but France might also lose its AAA credit rating. More spending cuts will be needed and growth for next year is predicted to be a meagre 0.5%. None of this makes for good reading as an election year approaches and the President remains deeply unpopular.
What better therefore than to turn the blame for the Eurozone’s woes onto the City of London and the UK? Fortunately David Cameron was having none of it. Just to make matters worse for President Sarkozy, however, on Sunday, 11 December the nationalised French railways changed 85% of their timetable. Can you imagine how angry those French commuters were this morning?!
Professor Jeremy Jennings is Director of the Centre for the Study of Political Thought at Queen Mary, University of London. His latest work, Revolution and the Republic: A History of Political Thought in France, was recently published by Oxford University Press.