Is a “Frexit” Imminent?

by Mikka Burrell

Introduction

On June 23, 2016, more than 30 million Brits headed to the polls to decide whether the United Kingdom should “Leave” or“Remain” in the European Union.[1] In the end, 51.9 percent voted to leave the European Union.[2] The controversial “Brexit” referendum, as it has come to be known, has sent shockwaves throughout Europe, with many Euroskeptic politicians in other EU countries expressing support for the Leave vote and a desire to hold their own referendums.[3]

In particular, support for a similar “Frexit” referendum in France, largely led by far-right Front National leader Marine Le Pen, has gained momentum. Le Pen, who hopes to be elected President in France’s upcoming spring elections, has consistently maintained that, should she win the election, she would hold a similar referendum on France’s membership in the EU within six months of attaining power.[4]

The Current Sociopolitical Climate in France

While Le Pen’s comments could be taken as nothing more than hollow campaign rhetoric, one need only glance at any major news outlet in the last twelve months to understand why a Frexit vote to leave the European Union could be a possibility. In November 2015, France experienced the deadliest terrorist attack in its history when three assailants carried out shootings in various cafes, bars, and sports venues around the French capital of Paris.[5] As a result, 130 people were killed and over 300 more were injured.[6] Since then, it seems France has consistently been in the news, with five more terror attacks committed on French soil in the past year.[7]

Additionally, the French economy has largely remained stagnant under French President François Hollande’s leadership. Since Hollande’s election in 2012, the French economy experienced three consecutive years of stagnation.[8] Whereas the unemployment rate in France was 9.8 percent in 2012, it now hovers around 10.2 percent today.[9]

The European migrant crisis has also been a topic of public debate in France. A study done by the Institut français d’opinion publique (IFOP) revealed that approximately 63 percent of French citizens believe that their country already has too large a number of foreign nationals and cannot take on additional immigration.[10] Additionally, 72 percent of French citizens are calling for the reestablishment of border checkpoints in order to curb migration and increase security.[11] However, such a reestablishment would fly directly in the face of the Schengen Agreement, a European Union law that largely abolished internal border checkpoints between EU member nations.[12] Moreover, the EU has considered imposing sanctions on member nations who refuse to host refugees, in an effort to encourage member nations to take on their fair share of migrants.[13] Such a heavy-handed policy from Brussels could cause further disillusionment with the EU in France and drum up support for Le Pen’s presidential candidacy.

The Numbers are Inconclusive

Taken in the aggregate, French citizens’ concerns over security, the economy, and the European migrant crisis could indeed influence the next leader of France to hold a Frexit referendum on EU membership. But even with all of the challenges France is facing, it is worth noting that the latest opinion polls do not give a clear answer as to whether France actually wants to hold a referendum to leave the EU.

A study published in June 2016 by American think tank Pew Research Center revealed that approximately 61 percent of French citizens view the EU unfavorably.[14] This represents a 17 percent drop in favorability from just one year ago, making France the member nation with the most dramatic change in public opinion of the EU.[15] For comparison, only 48 percent of British citizens view the EU unfavorably despite being the first member nation to hold a EU membership referendum.[16] The study also noted, however, that public opinion of the EU is sharply divided along partisan lines; supporters of Euroskeptic parties, like Le Pen’s Front National, are much less likely than supporters of other major parties to view the EU favorably.[17] Additionally, 70 percent and 66 percent of French citizens disapprove of the EU’s handling of the migrant crisis and the economy, respectively.[18]

While the Pew Research Center’s study revealed that there is generally little enthusiasm for transferring more power to Brussels, 34 percent of French citizens polled supported a stronger European Union.[19] While this is still a minority figure, the 34 percent reflects the strongest backing for an ever closer Europe among the member nations polled, as opposed to just 6 percent of the public in the United Kingdom wanting to transfer more power to the EU.[20]

Conclusion

It remains to be seen what the logistics of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU would look like and what the effect will be for other EU nations and the rest of the world, or whether France will ever hold a referendum of its own. However, one can be sure that Frexit will be a significant talking point in the months leading up to the French presidential elections in April and May 2017.

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[1] Brian Wheeler & Alex Hunt, Brexit: All You Need to Know About The UK Leaving The EU, BBC, (Aug. 10, 2016), http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-32810887.

[2] Id.

[3] Kate Lyons & Gordon Darroch, Frexit, Nexit or Oexit? Who Will be Next to Leave the EU, Guardian, (June 27, 2016, 3:30 PM), http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jun/27/frexit-nexit-or-oexit-who-will-be-next-to-leave-the-eu.

[4] Elisabeth Zerofsky, Marine Le Pen Prepares for a “Frexit”, New Yorker, (June 29, 2016), http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/marine-le-pen-prepares-for-a-frexit.

[5] Paris Attacks: What Happened on the Night, BBC, (Dec. 9, 2015), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34818994.

[6] Id.

[7] A Timeline of Terror Attacks in France and Belgium Since Charlie Hebdo, Euronews, (July 15, 2016), http://www.euronews.com/2016/07/15/a-timeline-of-terror-attacks-in-france-and-belgium-since-charlie-hebdo.

[8] Why the Worst May Be Over for the French Economy, Economist, (May 15, 2016, 11:36 PM), http://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2016/05/economist-explains-10?zid=309&ah=80dcf288b8561b012f603b9fd9577f0e.

[9] Id.

[10] Jérôme Fourquet, Six Months After: Europeans Facing Migrant Crisis, Institut français d’opinion publique (Apr. 4, 2016), https://jean-jaures.org/sites/default/files/notefjj-304eng.compressed.pdf.

[11] Id.

[12] See Wikipedia, Schengen Agreement, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schengen_Agreement (describing abolishment of border checkpoints and adoption of the Schengen Agreement as EU law) (as of Aug. 18, 2016, 00:55 GMT).

[13] Migrant Crisis: EU Plans Penalties for Refusing Asylum Seekers, BBC, (May 4, 2016), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-36202490.

[14] Bruce Stokes, Euroskepticism Beyond Brexit, Pew Research Center, (June 7, 2016), http://www.pewglobal.org/2016/06/07/euroskepticism-beyond-brexit.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.