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Views on Europe | The Views from Europe Edition

Professor Michael Kelly

What the French really think about Brexit

The French President and Prime Minister have been much quoted for their warnings about the consequences if Britain should decide to leave the EU. But what do ordinary French people think about it? On the basis of talking to French friends and colleagues recently during a couple of weeks in Paris, I can confidently say that there are at least three different views.

The first view, and the majority among my friends, is that it would be dreadful if Britain were to leave. Many of our brilliant scientific and cultural collaborations would wind down. Life would be poorer for both countries without them. The more anxious observers are also afraid of the domino effect that might follow across Europe as complex relationships come undone. At the least, the balance of power in the EU would shift decisively eastwards. Without Britain as a powerful ally, France and other countries would increasingly become client states of Germany.

The second view is the opposite of this. Britain’s departure would be very welcome and a boost to France’s own anti-EU activists. Marine Le Pen, and the ‘identitarian’ groups to the Right of the Front national would be strengthened in their campaign to leave the EU and reassert French control of their national priorities. They would be joined by the far-Right nationalist movements that are currently gaining ground in other countries. The vision of many of them is a new Middle Ages, in which smaller regional powers will form the basis of a ‘Europe of 100 flags’ (to quote the Breton nationalist Yann Fouéré).

The third view is that Britain’s departure would have little or no impact on France. Paris might even gain by international businesses relocating from London after Brexit, even if the main beneficiary is likely to be the financial powerhouse of Frankfurt. This view is typically taken by people who have lost patience with the British approach to Europe. They say that Britain has been half-hearted about Europe ever since it joined, has had too many special deals (like the Thatcher rebate) and has opted out of too many arrangements (like Schengen and the Euro).

Underlying these three views of Brexit is the traditional love-hate relationship that France and Britain have always had with each other. Locked together by geography and history, we are the eternal ‘frères ennemis’ who are both so alike and so different.

With or without Brexit, France and Britain will continue to have a geographical and historical relationship. But if we did leave the EU it would be a more distant and more foreign relationship. We would lose the common ground we share in Europe. The future would be more uncertain for the 400,000 Brits in France and 140,000 French in Britain, some of whom are already worried enough to be taking out the nationality of their host country. We would no doubt face the new reality with an English stiff upper lip, and expect in return to receive a Gallic shrug.

Perhaps the most worrying thought that I have brought back is that my French friends often referred to the prospect of Britain leaving the EU as a divorce. It had not really occurred to me to see our membership of the EU as a marriage, but the parallel is clear. Brexit would not just be a rearrangement of our legal obligations. It would be the end of a fundamental commitment to each other. We should not expect this divorce to be anything other than painful and messy.



Mike Kelly

Professor Michael Kelly is a Professor of French in Modern Languages at the University of Southampton. Mike is a specialist in modern French culture and society, especially the history of ideas and intellectuals, and on public policy in the area of languages and language education, in the UK and in Europe more broadly.

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