France's "non" vote to the EU constitution in 2005 has made the subject of Europe a political hot potato in the presidential campaign. Where do the candidates stand when it comes to Brussels?
France's "no" to the proposed EU constitution hit Europe hard
On first glance, it might appear that the French presidential candidates are slackers regarding the European Union, since the bloc is hardly on the radar screens during this election season.
"European topics are hardly present in the French campaign," said Henri de Grossouvre, head of the European think tank Forum Carolus.
But this EU shyness in an otherwise fairly boisterous campaign is not surprising to many observers since talk about Europe is likely to score few points for the candidates vying for the presidency. On May 29, 2005, French voters refused to follow the entreaties of the country's political elite and maneuvered their country into a European dead end. It does not appear that the French, or the candidates, are very eager to find their way back.
France's EU malaise can be partially traced to outgoing French president Jacques Chirac who, unlike his predecessor Francois Mitterrand, generally placed his own or French interests before those of the EU when it came to forging compromises with Brussels. For example, in 1998 he pushed like a bulldozer to ensure that the second president of the European central bank was a Frenchman.
Chirac is leaving an uncertain political landscape to his potential successor, each of whom has a very different solution to the bind the EU finds itself in.
Sarkozy -- "Mini constitution"
Nicolas Sarkozy wants a slimmed-down treaty
Nicolas Sarkozy, from the governing UMP party, likes to talk about a slimmed-down version of the EU constitution. If he wins the upcoming election, he would like to introduce a "simplified" EU constitution to the French parliament for consideration. This "mini constitution" would only guarantee the smooth functioning of the 27 member states.
"Sarkozy has prepared everything to bring France out of its isolation," said Frank Baasner, director of the French-German Institute (DFI) in Ludwigsburg. Sarkozy has ruled out another referendum.
"The first referendum brought Europe to a standstill," Baasner said. "A second would destroy it."
Royal -- ready for risk
Segolene Royal wants to have the constitution reworked
Sarkozy's socialist rival, Segolene Royal, is campaigning for a "new participatory style of politics," according to Daniela Schwarzer, France expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).
Up to now, Royal has held more than 5,000 public forums on various campaign themes, including European policy. She wants to have the constitutional treaty reworked and more stress put on economic and social matters. Royal says she's "ready to take the risk."
"In a new referendum, it will be about actually making Europe the topic of the vote," said Axel Schäfer, the Europe expert of the Social Democrats' parliamentary group. In the 2005 referendums in France and the Netherlands, many observers believe that people used the "no" vote to express their dissatisfaction with national politics and politicians. Schäfer pointed out that in France "actually a large majority are in favor of a European constitution."
Bayrou -- the model European?
Bayrou is taking the middle road
Francois Bayrou from the centrist UDF party is treading a middle line between Sarkozy and Royal. He does advocate, like Royal, holding a new referendum. But he enters Sarkozy territory when he calls for a "credible, simple, short document." In his opinion, there should be only two considerations: how decisions are made and where the citizen stands. In the past, Bayrou has been a supporter of a federal Europe.
But Bayrou's interest in Europe policy more than just campaign rhetoric. In light of his long advocacy for common EU institutions, he is the more credible EU proponent among the candidates, according to France expert Baasner.
"Other EU partners would basically know where he stands," he said.
Le Pen -- a nativist Europe
Jean-Marie Le Pen is not an EU fan
Jean-Marie Le Pen from the far-right National Front (FN) likes to call the EU a "fat, soft jellyfish" and, if elected, would push to see border checks re-established that were eliminated by the Schengen agreement.
"Those who are now hauling out their dusty French flags always forget to say that they are sealing France's end in that they will force a new constitutional treaty on the French as soon as they are elected," said Le Pen's daughter Marine, who campaigns for her father, during an interview on French television. She was referring to attempts by both Sarkozy and Royal to appeal to French patriotic sentiments during the current election campaign. All the candidates of the middle, Sarkozy, Royal and Bayrou, came out in favor of the EU constitution back in 2005. Whoever wins the upcoming election will have to explain to his or her European partners soon thereafter how and why the draft treaty should be changed.