Not just Britain: It turns out French Euroskepticism is on the rise too

A new poll shows that the European Union is seen favorably by only 38 percent of the French public, below the 44 percent of Brits who hold a similar view of the EU.

Jean-Paul Pelissier/Reuters/File
French labor union employees march during a demonstration in protest of the government's proposed labor law reforms in Marseille, France, last week.

Amid strikes, street demonstrations, and French President François Hollande’s rock-bottom approval ratings, anger expressed today by the French often seems directed at only one target: France itself.

But according to a new poll by Pew Research Center, the French are also just as frustrated with the European Union. Just 38 percent of the French public hold a favorable view of the bloc, the second lowest level of all the nations polled. That percentage sits below that of the Brits, who are heading to the polls June 23 in a referendum to test their future membership.

I arrived in France in the spring of 2013, and since then Euroskepticism among the mainstream has been focused primarily on that ballooning in Britain – where, incidentally, 44 percent hold a favorable view of the EU, according to Pew’s findings.

When I talk to people in Britain to understand what is fueling the referendum, one of the drivers of British distrust is the historic founding of the EU as a Franco-German, Catholic-centric project. (See here how that is driving the “Anglican Brexiteer” vote, for instance.)

But, in fact, it is the "Franco-" founding partner that is the more skeptical party.

Part of that is the growing discontent across the West with the political elite, the same phenomenon that is drawing French voters to the National Front (and behind the discontent brewing in France now), others to anti-EU parties on the far left in southern Europe, and American voters to Donald Trump.

The French also feel increasingly miffed in the current era. While history has sealed the country’s role as an EU co-originator, current political and economic events have today left Germany as the major powerbroker. Coupled with stagnant growth here, the EU's favorability plummeted by 17 percentage points in France in the last year alone. In 2004, Pew found 69 percent of the French positive about the EU (higher than the Brits or Germans).

French Euroskepticism is not a new thing though. It predates President Hollande’s woes, economic pessimism, and all the crises surrounding the bloc right now. It even predates the financial crisis, when the EU’s viability got its first major test. In 2005, the French voted against a treaty establishing a constitution for Europe, stunning the rest of the continent.

That said, of the nations surveyed in this poll, a vast majority want Britain to remain. Seventy percent said the UK leaving would be a bad thing, compared to 16 percent who said it would be good. It is only France where more than a quarter – 32 percent –  of respondents said it would be positive for them to go.

A similar poll in France revealed that same sentiment a few weeks ago, and it was largely understood as a “good riddance Brits” message by the French. But French leaders, who like all other European elites are unequivocal about wanting Brits to vote to Remain, are eyeing more than just the political and economic consequences for Europe. They are worried a “Brexit” will inspire a “Frexit.”

Given the climate across Europe – opinions in the ten EU countries studied by Pew showed a median of just 51 percent with positive views of the EU, and it’s fallen everywhere over the past decade – French elites are not alone as they brace for the results.

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