Hope takes a beating in France too

My French husband doesn't think Britain's vote to leave the European Union (EU) is such a bad thing. "Good!" he replied when I told him what to me was terrible news. "They never really wanted to be European," he complained. "Let them go."

Britain never fully embraced EU membership, spurning the euro and wrangling other exceptions from Brussels that irritated many Europeans. But Britain's departure from the EU is very bad news for France, a country facing multiple crises, and where far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen - who is expected to do well in the first round of voting in presidential elections next spring - vows to do the same for France. The National Front plays to the same anger and fear as Britain's Leave campaigners. Hope has taken a beating here and globalisation has taken a toll: Factories have closed, wages have stagnated and small-scale farmers who cannot compete with large agribusiness operations have been pushed into bankruptcy. Unemployment remains stuck at around 10 per cent, with too many young people trapped in temporary jobs.

The terrorist threat in France remains high following the attacks in Paris last year. Every time a metro train suddenly stops, passengers exchange nervous glances. But more troubling for many is the profound sense that the government has failed to steer the country towards greater prosperity and economic opportunity, and that President Francois Hollande has exacerbated political divisions by clumsily introducing legislation that pleases neither the right nor the left.

A deeply unpopular labour-reform Bill Mr Hollande introduced in March that would, among other provisions, allow employees to negotiate contracts directly with employers rather than through unions, sparked a series of debilitating strikes and demonstrations across the country, with violent confrontations between the police and protesters.

Mr Hollande's approval rating now stands at a record low of 17 per cent and there's not much faith he is up to leading France through difficult times ahead as the EU moves forward with one fewer member. Still, despite Ms Le Pen's campaign for France to follow Britain's example, a majority of the French want to stay in the union.

Britain's departure has shown the stark divisions in Europe between creditors and debtor states, the more prosperous north and the struggling south, the new EU members in Eastern Europe and the leadership in Brussels.

It has also forced a reckoning with the union's failure to deal humanely with the challenge of migration from Africa and the Middle East.

At the same time, millions are still struggling with the economic pain imposed by harsh austerity programmes. The EU will have to do a lot better in responding to Italy's banking crisis and France's creeping national debt - which now stands at nearly 97 per cent of gross domestic product - than it did with the Greek debt crisis.

Europe's leaders are understandably fearful of citizen revolts against the EU - in the form of populist parties, a temptation to hold Brexit-style referendums, and pushback from nationalist governments, like those in Hungary and Poland. When Mr Hollande met leaders of France's political parties on Saturday to discuss the fallout from the British referendum, he made it a point to tell Ms Le Pen that France would not hold such a referendum.

On Monday, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of Italy and Mr Hollande made a brave show of unity, stating their commitment to reform the EU by strengthening security, job creation and economic growth.

But we've heard these promises before; what Europeans expect now is change in how the EU operates, with more democratic accountability, greater flexibility on helping countries struggling with debt, and a recognition that what works for some countries may not work for all.

How this plays out in the weeks and months to come will determine whether the union can hold together after Britain's departure. Even if Britain manages to delay its withdrawal, the damage has been done.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 01, 2016, with the headline 'Hope takes a beating in France too'. Print Edition | Subscribe