• Hollande says French EU membership will be key in 2017 race
  • Polls show Marine Le Pen may lead first round of election

France’s 2017 presidential election may hinge on a debate about the European Union membership in the aftermath of the U.K. vote to leave the bloc, President Francois Hollande said after Britain’s David Cameron met with European leaders in Brussels.

“We can see that the presidential election will depend on the European issue, not just on the union’s priorities, but on the very presence, the very membership of France in the EU,” the Socialist president said at a press conference in Brussels. “The populists and extremists who call for their countries to leave the EU must now look at the consequences. And the people must know about it, not after they vote, but beforehand.”

With National Front leader Marine Le Pen leading the polls for the first round of the French presidential vote that is 10 months away, Hollande is weighing the consequences of the British departure for domestic politics. Le Pen has been vocal in her praise for the “courageous” choice of British voters and in calling for a French referendum within six months if elected. Polls show she would lose the presidential race in the second and final round in May 2017.

Le Pen wants to withdraw France from both the EU and the euro to put in place a policy of what she calls a “smart protectionism.”

About 45 percent of French voters favor their country’s continued membership in EU, while 33 percent say France should follow the British example and leave, according to a TNS Sofres poll published this week. Voters are about evenly divided on whether they want a referendum, the same poll of 1,000 voters showed.

Hollande, who has not said yet if he will seek a second mandate, has approval ratings that hover near record lows and lags behind opposition Republican candidates and Le Pen in presidential vote surveys. While jobs and economy have dominated the early stages of the French presidential campaign, Europe’s fate, immigration and border protection have taken an increasing share of the debate, especially as Le Pen and former President Nicolas Sarkozy seek to capitalize on the British decision.

“We must prevent extremists parties from using this rage that people have in the country,” Hollande said. “We must prevent the populists from using this rage to break Europe.”

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