Past French Presidential elections and campaigns have revealed a certain paradox concerning the importance afforded to the question of Europe. This became particularly evident in the aftermath of the 1992 referendum on the Treaty of Maastricht which sparked a huge debate in France culminating in a very slim victory for the YES vote. It would have been reasonable to expect that from this point on Europe would become a central concern for the electorate. However, the 1995 Presidential election demonstrated that for the French population Europe was not a key question with polls confirming that it featured amongst secondary issues in determining voters’ choices. The lack of significance for the electorate was mirrored by the scant coverage given to this subject by candidates themselves who preferred to focus on domestic problems that “counted” for voters.
Such a paradox continued in the 2002 and 2007 elections. Despite the creeping importance and impact of Europe (the introduction of the Euro, enlargement, etc.) as well as clear concerns (cf. the 2005 debate and French NO vote on the Constitutional Treaty) it remained a fringe issue in campaigns and a minor factor in determining votes; to some extent the ‘elephant in the room.’ Explaining why this is the case is very complex. However, one overriding reason is that over the years there has been a clear consensus between the mainstream parliamentary parties (Left and Right) over the grandes lignes of the European project. In fact as euroscepticism has increased and become an increasingly prominent feature, it has largely been to the benefit of the extremes at each end of the political spectrum.
However, and as if to further underscore how the crisis has become the pivotal issue, there are grounds to believe that the 2012 elections will see the European question become more than a secondary concern for the candidates and the electorate. The December 2011 Treaty change (driven through in particular by Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel) aimed at securing financial stability for the EU in the face of the financial crisis has become a divisive topic between the two main candidates. In a speech in Lille on 23 February, outgoing President Sarkozy defended his strategy on Europe over the crisis; ‘Que serait-il resté de l’Europe si nous ne nous étions pas battus pour sauver l’euro?’ He accused the PS of lacking courage by not backing his project when it was brought to the French Assembly; ‘Comment prétendre protéger les Français si l’on s’abstient lorsqu’il s’agit de construire l’instrument d’une solidarité européenne ?… L’abstention c’est un renoncement, c’est le refus d’assumer, c’est le contraire du courage.’ The PS candidate François Hollande, in a speech on the same date in Le Mans defended his party’s stance and promised to renegotiate the Treaty if elected; ‘J’accepte l’idée de disciplines à l’échelle de l’Europe. Je sais ce que nous avons à faire ensemble pour coordonner nos politiques économiques. Mais en même temps, je l’ai dit aussi aux Français : pour ce qui me concerne je n’accepterai pas un traité qui oublie la croissance, le développement, l’emploi, l’activité économique, les projets industriels, la transition énergétique.’
As the campaign gathers momentum, the battle lines between the two principal contenders are becoming clear and it would appear that the question of Europe could this time be more than a minor consideration.