French public ambivalent on looming spectre of Le Brexit
Published 23/04/2016 | 02:30
In France, they call it 'Le Brexit', and the possibility of it happening has prompted an odd mix of alarm, ambivalence and applause across the Channel. With just over two months to go before the referendum that will determine whether the UK remains in the European Union (EU), French President François Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls have warned that the tremors from a Brexit would be felt in France and throughout the bloc.
French economy minister Emmanuel Macron told a conference in London this week that leaving the EU would make the UK "just like Hong Kong, Jersey or Guernsey".
He warned: "Leave the club and you'll be alone."
Macron has also claimed that a Brexit could upend the 2003 bilateral Le Touquet treaty, which set down a system whereby British police carry out passport checks in France while their French counterparts can conduct their own controls in Dover. The minister argued that if this happens, the migrant camps in Calais could become a reality across the Channel in Kent.
Many in the French business elite are uneasy about the possible impact of a Brexit - some believe that having the UK in the EU helps counter the more statist leanings of France and other countries.
Henri de Castries, chief executive of insurance firm Axa, said the British referendum was akin to playing Russian roulette "with maybe not six bullets in the gun - but at least four."
But attitudes among the general public here are far more ambivalent. A new opinion poll for 'Le Figaro' newspaper shows 50pc of French respondents are against a Brexit.
Earlier this year, a study by the University of Edinburgh found that the French were keener on the UK leaving the EU than any other nationality in the bloc, with 44pc wanting it to withdraw. Attitudes seem to have hardened in the run-up to the vote - another poll showed a similar number of French believe that the UK is a problem for the EU, compared to just 7pc sharing that view last year. The tabloid 'Le Parisien', commenting on another survey with similar results, said the figures showed that "Britain will always be seen in France as the perfidious Albion."
Meanwhile, France's far-right and Eurosceptic National Front party, whose support base has expanded greatly over the past year, is cheering for the UK to leave the EU. Its leader Marine Le Pen, who is planning to visit the UK to campaign in favour of a Brexit, wants British voters to opt for withdrawing because she hopes such a move would trigger a chain reaction across the bloc. A recent poll showing that 53pc of the French would like to have their own referendum on EU membership was applauded by Le Pen. Given the opportunity to vote, 44pc of respondents said they would stay, 33pc would leave and the remainder were unsure.
Some French who do not fall into the National Front or the wider Eurosceptic camp, but still wish for the UK to leave the EU, argue that such a move would make the bloc "more French" and therefore should be seen as an opportunity for France. Such views summon the ghost of Charles de Gaulle, who, as French president in the 1960s, vetoed the UK's request to join the EU's forerunner. De Gaulle envisaged the then nascent European project as based mainly on Franco-German co-operation and was wary of the UK's ties with the US. While the French government's official line is that it wants the UK to stay in the EU, some mandarins are privately more ambivalent, particularly those who have always seen the UK as an obstacle to deeper integration.
Another facet of the debate in France is the question of the British diaspora there. Some 300,000 Britons live in France, many of them retirees. They fret about what a possible departure from the EU might mean for their right to stay and work, plus their access to healthcare and public services. If the UK votes to leave on June 23, it will prompt lengthy negotiations, including over the rights of British citizens living in the bloc. Some Britons in France are already seeking French citizenship in case their legal status is imperilled. "The problem is no one really knows which way this might go," says one British expat living in the south of France. "We're taking no chances."