French socialists hope to capitalise on anti-EU sentiment
Currently struggling in the polls – behind both the centre- and far-right – the French Socialist party is desperately seeking to boost its political fortunes.
Having failed to capitalise on the crash of the financial sector in the 2009 EU elections, socialists in France, and around Europe, are now hoping to capitalise on the anti-European feeling that has arisen in response to how the crisis has been managed.
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The May EU poll will be a key test.
“We have moved from euroscepticism to europhobia, and I think this is due to austerity policies and to recession in Europe,” says Jean-Christophe Cambadelis, the Socialist Party’s campaign director for the EU elections.
The fact that the EU political map is largely centre-right means socialists feel they can absolve themselves from any blame for the rise in anti-EU sentiment.
“It must be noted that for at least the last eight years – i.e since the appointment of Jose Manuel Barroso as head the European Commission – the conservatives have been running policy.”
But the national deputy says that between the centre-right and the “europhobes” there is an “alternative”.
Cambadelis is hoping that a legal innovation since the last EU vote will help better engage voters.
Under the rules, EU leaders have to take into account the result of the EU elections when nominating the next commission president. This is understood to mean that the commission chief should hail from the political family that wins the most votes in the EU election – a step Cambadelis says renders the May vote “historical”.
“Previously the EU vote meant indicating to governments what one thought about Europe. But now it is about actually constructing Europe.”
The European Socialists have chosen European Parliament President Martin Schulz to be their candidate for the top EU Job. Concerned that the party – as the governing power in France – risks being punished in the May vote, French socialists have been focusing on the EU nature of the poll.
They have been emphasizing Schulz as an alternative to Barroso.
There has been some doubt, however, about whether Schulz would become head of the commission even if the centre-left win the EU vote.
Germany, for one, is against the process happening automatically, instead wanting governments to have the last say on who is nominated.
But for Cambadelis, the answer is straightforward. If there is a clear left majority in the European Parliament, he says: “I don’t see how the European Council could impose its chosen candidate.”
“The parliament will have the last word because it is the parliament that will vote,” he adds.
Cambadelis also points out that German chancellor Angela Merkel has not been consistent on the issue.
Having initially opposed the idea, Merkel then supported former Luxembourg leader Jean-Claude Juncker to be the centre-right EPP’s candidate for the post.
It would be “contradictory to support a candidate for EU commission presidency but at the same time say: ‘Don’t worry I am the one who will decide in the end’,” says Cambadelis.
People care about jobs, not immigration
But while the socialists are trying to keep domestic politics out of the EU vote, another concern is the expected breakthrough of the anti-immigrant, anti-EU National Front (FN) party.
According to the latest estimates by PollWatch, the FN is set to obtain 20 percent of French votes. This would mean 18 seats – they currently have three – in the European Parliament.
But Cambadelis cautions against overblowing the potential popularity of far-right parties across Europe. He reckons they will scoop no more than 100 of the EU parliament’s 751 seats.
A vote for the far-right is, in his opinion “fruitless”. He notes that 100 deputies will not render EU institutions unable to function.
But he does admit their increased presence could lead to “tensions” in the parliament.
“Voting for National Front means losing the vote, not influencing the direction of European construction,” he adds.
Asked about French socialists’ reluctance to comment on immigration – one of the National Front’s favourite topics, Cambadelis says this is due to a “difference” in priorities.
“The National Front is obsessed with immigrants, we are obsessed with growth,” he says.
“The issue Europe is facing today is one of growth, of the control of government deficits, innovation, and worldwide competition.”
“We are not going to follow the National Front in its islamophobia,” he notes.
“When I go door-to-door, people are not complaining that there are too many women wearing veils. People are talking about the difficulty in making end meets, and unemployment.”
Bringing back a true left-right divide
Instead the heart of the socialists’ strategy is an attempt to bring back a proper left-right divide in Europe.
The party wants to break up the “traditional [power-sharing] compromise” between the centre-left and the centre-right – also prevalent in the European Parliament.
Strongly differentiating itself from the centre-right will give voters an alternative, argues Cambadelis, otherwise they will increasingly turn to anti-EU parties.
But will voters be so easy to convince?
France is certainly no exception when it comes to this trend. The centre-left has become virtually indistinguishable from the centre-right in several policy areas.
Voters have noticed that in the last two years President Francois Hollande has not opposed the budget-cutting measures proposed by the European Commission.
“We did not strongly oppose the European Commission for a very simple reason: we are in a minority in the Council [where member states are represented] and in the Parliament,” says Cambadelis.
But this could change if the political landscape changes, he indicates.
“Sometimes people in Brussels have the impression that what is said there is the one and only truth. I think a different commission, different president, and different majority in the parliament could lead to a completely different policy.”
Despite his words, the European socialist’s manifesto, approved 1 March in Rome, remains relatively vague and respectful of the established order.