France and the EU: ambivalent relations and Euroscepticism

An analysis of the relationship between French people and the EU from Centre Kantar sur le Futur de l’Europe.
04 May 2020
French public opinion
Emmanuel Rivière

CEO, Public Division, France

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France is within the group of countries whose citizens are the least favourable to the European Union.

Although the French attitude to Europe is marked by gloom and distrust, we should not jump to a conclusion of widespread and unequivocal Euroscepticism among French citizens.

In our latest report from the Centre Kantar sur le Futur de l’Europe with the Jacques Delors Institute and Sciences Po political research centre (CEVIPOF) provides an in-depth analysis of the complex nature of the French attitude towards the EU is put forward.

What we distinguish is two types of ‘political support’. First, “diffuse support” which is the more intangible feelings and attitudes; endorsements of a vision and of values. Secondly, “specific support” which is the assessment of the effectiveness of actions conducted at the EU level.

On the basis of this distinction, it is possible to identify a characteristic feature of French citizens’ ambivalent attitude towards Europe: support for the EU is greater on a more diffuse level. While 53% of French people are attached to Europe, 57% believe that the European Union is “remote” and 65% think that it is not “effective”, as compared to 49% for total public opinion in Member States.

By focusing on citizens’ assessments of Europe’s actions, a comparative analysis can be used to define France’s support for the European Union in relation to other Member States.

This comparative analysis reveals a typology of opinions vis-à-vis the EU which highlights the following elements:

  • Distinction between the countries most and least favourable to European integration. In the first group, we find (in ascending order of support for the EU) Ireland, Denmark, Portugal, Luxembourg, Lithuania, Romania and Malta; in the second group (in ascending order of opposition to Europe), Slovenia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, France, Italy, the United Kingdom and Greece;
  • A social divide constitutes a second significant dividing line for all countries and particularly for France. European integration is negatively perceived by the working classes, the workers, the unemployed, and those who finished their studies before the age of 16. Those belonging to these groups very broadly view Europe as a threat to national social protection systems.
  • The typology can be broken down into four groups of attitudes towards the EU, according to position and intensity. French attitudes can be categorised as follows: 37% belong to the first group (quite positive Europeans), 43% to the second group (quite negative Europeans), 5% to the third group (the most positive Europeans) and 15% to the last group (the most negative Europeans). In the rest of Europe, there are twice as many with the most positive attitudes, and two times fewer with the most negative views.

How can this ambivalent relationship between the French and Europe be explained?

French people’s attitudes to Europe are marked by a national sense of “projection” which reflects the ambivalence at the heart of relations between the French and “Europe”: either Europe is perceived as an “instrument” serving France, or it reveals or mirrors a distortion of the famous “French exception”.

In this respect, several explanatory factors of a cultural nature can be put forward to gain an understanding of the specific relationship that the French have with the EU:

  • A unitarian political culture which is out of phase with the European culture of compromise.

    The unitarian conception of sovereignty in France comes up against the pluralist conception of institutional and political practice within the EU. This French attitude to political practice has an effect on the understanding of reality and the complex nature of politics on an EU level: difficulties in endorsing the practice of compromise, in acknowledging the legitimacy of defending private interests, in adapting to the system of variable geometry majority coalitions.

  • A social and economic culture marked by a level of distrust and even hostility towards liberalism: negative perceptions of liberalism, free trade and competition have a negative impact on the relationship that many French people have with the market which constitutes the heart of the European Union.

    Therefore, 40% of French citizens consider liberalism as something negative. Similarly, for 30% of French citizens, free trade is considered negatively (ranking last among the countries polled). Lastly, for 29% of French citizens, competition is considered to be a negative thing. The Colbertist tradition remains very pronounced in France and is at odds with the reality of the European Single Market, as demonstrated by debates in France on industrial policy and competition policy. The difficulty in France of accepting the very term “liberalism” and the French preference for public spending may also reflect the “hidden face” of the state-centralism of French political culture. Distrust towards the Stability Pact confirms the limited importance France gives to another key figure in the political culture present in public debates in other countries: the taxpayer. Furthermore, the fact that political controversies in France continue to open up for debate choices (on the State’s role, competition, fiscal balances) which have been decided by the treaties heightens the rift and the feeling of a relatively undemocratic straightjacket.

  • This national sense of projection allows us to put French reservations regarding enlargement into perspective.

    For more than half a century, France successfully combined two radically different visions of the rationale behind its European commitment: firstly, the “founding fathers” plan (convergence of Member States’ interests) and, secondly, the Gaullist project of Europe as an instrument allowing France to promote its national interests. The enlargements to Central and Eastern European countries have forced France to clarify its European project as the French are discovering that “Europe is not a bigger version of France”! This is most likely the main reason behind nostalgic rhetoric, in France in particular, about a “little Europe” and the difficulty of accepting change on the level of the enlarged Union.

Read the summary of the report in English.

Read the full report in French. 

Authors of this report:

Bruno Cautrès, researcher at the CNRS, Sciences Po political research centre (CEVIPOF)

Thierry Chopin, professor at the Lille Catholic University (ESPOL), special advisor to the Jacques Delors Institute

Emmanuel Rivière, CEO of the Public division of Kantar in France and Chairman of the Kantar Centre on the Future of Europe

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