More French influence in Europe – but it is liberal and federalist

With the Buttiglione crisis behind us and the fight over the ratification of the European constitution before us, Le Monde notices an increased French influence in the European Parliament:

Cette crise aura en tout cas confirm̩ la nouvelle et paradoxale image que renvoient les Fran̤ais si̩geant au Parlement europ̩en Рmoins nombreux, mais plus identifiables -, cinq mois apr̬s les ̩lections du 13 juin.

It is true, and I had noticed it myself, that French politicians seem to have improved their visibility on the European scene recently, whereas only six months ago, the general opinion seemed to be that Enlargement had put a definitive end to France’s leading role in the European Union. This was then typically illustrated by noting that, whereas most of the Commissioners, MEPs and civil servants from the new Member States could speak the language of Shakespeare, only a small minority of them had mastered the language of Molière.

On second reading however, the new French presence in Europe differs markedly from the old one. French influence in the EP used to be exercised mainly through the socialist (PSE), conservative (PPE) and communist (GUE) groups which contained most of the French deputies. In the Parliament elected in May this year, however, French influence in the PPE is considerably smaller, due to the fact that eleven MEPs of the centrist UDF moved to the liberal (ALDE) group, whereas the seventeen members of President Chirac’s centre-right UMP remained in the PPE. The rather federalist UDF members did this because they were unhappy with the eurosceptic atmosphere in the PPE in which the British Tories (37 members during the 1999-2004 term, vs. 21 Frenchmen) certainly make their presence felt.

The UDF move was tactically very smart. The PPE may be the largest group in the European Parliament, but the UDF, in the shadow of the UMP, had little influence on its conservative bearing. In contrast, the ALDE group is only the third largest group in the EP, but thanks to its position in the political centre it is often needed for political majorities, so its power is much greater than its size suggests. UDF MEPs also gained influential positions through their ALDE group membership. UDF leader Jean-Louis Bourlanges, already an influential MEP during the 1999-2004 term, is now chairman of the EP’s Justice and Home Affairs committee. In this position he presided over the showdown on Rocco Buttiglione, which Parliament won, and in which he will oversee, as of next year, much greater EP influence on immigration and asylum policy issues.

Meanwhile, French socialists are placing themselves outside the PSE mainstream very quickly, with their fierce debate on whether or not they should campaign for a ‘yes’ vote in the referendum on the European Constitution. The French Parti Socialiste is the only PSE party that could still vote against: the odds for a ‘no’ and those for a ‘yes’ are even in the internal party referendum that is currently going on. All other PSE parties have decided to campaign in favour of the Constitution long ago. And that is not surprising, given the fact that quite a lot of them were in government when the negotiations were going on – including, of course, the French PS, but at least part of it seems to have changed its opinion. For Laurent Fabius, main protagonist of the eusceptical camp, his presidential ambitions had of course nothing to do with that. Still, a ‘no’ vote of the French would not be taken lightly by their fellow socialists, and would isolate them in their own political family.

So, all in all, the increased French influence in the European Parliament seems to be liberal and federalist in nature. Quite a surprise, for a gaullist country where “liberal” is almost a bad word.

Leave a Reply