In France, the window of acceptable Euroscepticism is far narrower
The mutual admiration between Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen can easily lead to the impression that they share a common political agenda.
Both figures are firebrands, who place the key objective of regaining national sovereignty surrendered to the EU at the heart of their political discourse; both attract and indeed seek controversy like magnets. Yet even as they may appear to be railing against identical concepts such as free movement or economic sovereignty, their two brands of Euroscepticism continue to strongly differ, precisely because they are defined in opposition to the two distinct implementations of European integration present in the UK and France.
Take free movement. The promise of ‘taking back control‘ of Britain’s borders was undoubtedly instrumental in securing a vote to leave the EU.
However, when Le Pen rails against it, she is referring to something completely different to Farage: the fact that as a Schengen signatory, France’s borders, for all intents and purposes, stretch from the Aegean Sea to the Baltic. The free movement upon which she focuses her fire is that created by a borderless continental Europe, which her party describes as a mechanism for the ‘free movement of weapons and terrorists‘.
Migration between EU member states, the top issue in Britain’s referendum, simply is not a significant focus of the Front National’s ire. The far more concrete and salient issue of a borderless France, which the FN presents as a globalist plot to materially and politically weaken France and its citizens, is instead pursued relentlessly.
Intra-European immigration is occasionally criticised by Le Pen, but only fleetingly; far more common are denunciations of refugees, or, by those at the fringes of her party, non-white immigration altogether.
As a country whose emotional stake in the European project has led it to participate in flagship schemes like the euro and Schengen, the window of acceptable opposition to European integration is far narrower than in Britain. Le Pen may welcome Brexit with the cry of ‘and now, France!’, but since she became party president, the goal of leaving altogether has been placed on the backburner.
Leaving the euro and regaining control of France’s borders is Le Pen’s constant focus, with her MEPs even describing their party’s agenda as only regaining enough sovereignty for France to be on the same level as the UK [pre-Brexit] within the EU.
She is far from Jean-Marie Le Pen who, in 2002, proposed that France should unilaterally leave the EU by cancelling the ratification of the European treaties.
Her stated goal now is not to leave the EU; rather it is to renegotiate sovereignty in four key areas: territorial, legislative, economic, and fiscal. Rather than an outright exit, she claims to want to change the nature of the EU from a federalising project to one which respects the primacy of the nation-state.
But these aims are intentionally difficult if not impossible. Reinstating the primacy of French law over European law would undermine the foundations of the European project. Legally leaving the euro under the current treaties would be impossible; there is no exit mechanism provided for a euro country.
David Cameron’s renegotiation efforts failed even by his timid benchmark; for a Eurozone and Schengen country to attempt a far more ambitions repatriation of sovereignty would undoubtedly be doomed to failure.
But that is of course Le Pen’s aim. Unlike Cameron, Le Pen’s objectives are knowingly unachievable, designed to shift the debate in one of the founding members of the European project away from further integration and towards an embrace of hardline Euroscepticism as has won in the UK.
Already, it is working; likely presidential candidate François Fillon is using his opposition to the Maastricht Treaty to court votes in the Republican open primary, aware of the porosity between his electorate and Le Pen’s, yet he suggests more powers for the Eurogroup, including a unified fiscal policy.
The French elite is caught in a death spiral, aware that Le Pen’s Euroscepticism bites because her criticism rings true, yet unable to propose solutions which do not involve more Europe. Their inertia is coming back to bite them.
Ido Vock is a British writerSign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.