As a founder-member with Germany, France has, for over half a century, put the construction of Europe and the taming of Germany at the heart of foreign policy. If the British have grown up on tabloid Euroscepticism to regard Europe as a menace to national power, the French have been taught to see Europe as an amplifier of theirs. Europe, according to the French creed, is the solution, not the problem. To any new obstacle: more Europe still.
Yet four years after the start of the euro-zone crisis, with joblessness at a 16-year high and a recession-battered economy, disillusion has set in. In today’s French mind, the EU has become too big, too distant, too focused on austerity and trade: a constraint, not a means of salvation. Only 41% of the French now say that they are favorably disposed to the EU, according to Pew Research, far fewer than in Germany (60%)—and fewer even than in Britain (43%). Fully 77% say that European integration has weakened their economy, more than in Spain or Italy. One in three of the French would leave the EU today, according to a YouGov poll.
On the fringes of French politics, populists are surfing this sentiment with zeal. When Mr Hollande on November 12th welcomed EU leaders to Paris to discuss youth unemployment, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a Communist-backed firebrand, derided them as the “undertakers of the European ideal”. On the far right, Marine Le Pen predicts gleefully that the EU will collapse “like the Soviet Union” under the weight of its own contradictions. Her National Front could come first in European Parliament elections next May.
Even the pro-European elite is voicing its second thoughts. François Heisbourg, of the Foundation for Strategic Research, has just published “The End of the European Dream”, which argues that the euro cannot survive without a degree of integration that is politically unrealistic. His remedy? The orderly dismantling of the single currency in order to rebuild the EU on solid ground.