France at risk of catching referendum bug

June 21, 2016

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist.  The opinions expressed are her own.

Britain’s referendum on European Union membership has the power to inspire others. The Dutch may find it easiest to force a copycat vote since a law passed last year gave citizens more power to demand such plebiscites. Far more dangerous for the bloc would be if the French wanted a say.

The Franco-German nexus has been the motor for European integration for more than half a century. So, theoretically, there should be little risk in offering Gallic voters a chance to reaffirm their support for the project. But things aren’t so clear cut. A Europe-wide drop in the proportion of people who view the EU positively was the most marked in France, a recent Pew Research Center survey showed. Only 38 percent of French respondents had a favourable view of the bloc, down 17 points from last year and the second lowest after austerity-hit Greece.

The malaise matters because far-right National Front party leader Marine Le Pen has promised to organise a referendum on leaving the EU if she comes to power. Polls show she could lead the pack in the first round of the 2017 presidential elections, depending on whom the centre-right Les Republicains pick as their candidate. While Le Pen is expected to lose the second round, she will have plenty of scope to shape the debate.

Most mainstream French politicians don’t want to hold a referendum. Memories of voters’ 2005 rejection of a proposed EU constitution may have something to do with it. And leaving the EU is a far bigger deal for a euro zone member than for Britain, which never gave up its currency. But enough pressure from Le Pen and the polls could make it more tempting to contemplate the same pre-election gamble that enticed British Prime Minister David Cameron, who was trying to unite his Conservative Party.

Neither the ruling Socialists nor the opposition Les Republicains are plagued by UK-style rifts over the EU. Still, a strong Le Pen showing could goad them into considering ways of stealing her thunder. If so, Britain will be a reminder of the risks of succumbing to opportunism.

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