France Set to Remain ‘Most Difficult’ in Post-Vote Brexit Debate

  • Macron says he wants to preserve the rest of European Union
  • Marine Le Pen the only front-runner who’s dovish on the U.K.

When French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron arrives in London on Tuesday he will bring a Brexit negotiating stance widely shared by his country’s governing class: the U.K. cannot expect special favors as it seeks to extract itself from the European Union.

“I will be pretty tough on it because we have to preserve the rest of the European Union,” Macron told Channel 4 News on Feb. 13. “It’s not to be punished but to be consistent with such a decision. You don’t get a passport and you don’t get access to the single market when you decide to leave.”

Rival Francois Fillon is if anything harder. “You can’t have one foot in and one foot out,” Bruno Le Maire, the former minister who is handling foreign affairs for Fillon, said in an interview last week. “We need to organize the exit as quickly as possible to respect the interests of France and Europe.”

Three months since an adviser to Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative Party was photographed carrying a memo that read “French likely to be most difficult,” the people anticipated to take over from Francois Hollande in May all pose challenges to Britain’s Brexit strategy as they vie to run the euro-area’s No. 2 economy.

‘Different Ballgame’

The exception among the the three front-runners for the French presidency is Marine Le Pen, who has promised a referendum on France’s own relationship with the EU within six months of taking office.

“With Le Pen it’s a different ballgame,” said Francois Heisbourg, president of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

While Le Pen is on track to lead in the first round of voting on April 23, all polls show that she would be defeated in the run-off two weeks later by either Fillon or Macron, who are in a tight race to be the candidate facing her.

Despite their campaign pronouncements on how to treat the U.K.’s exit from the EU, negotiations for the 27 member states will primarily be handled by the European Commission’s Michel Barnier.

Not that the future of the U.K. has featured highly on the campaign trail. Most candidates barely touch on Brexit in meetings and media appearances as the nation grapples with an unemployment rate of 10 percent, unrest in poor suburbs around Paris and more than 200 dead in terrorist attacks since the beginning of 2015. The last significant mention of the issue by Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon, who is currently running fourth in the race, was made in June. His campaign officials didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Failed Predictions

Again the exception is Le Pen, for whom the choices made by British voters in referendum on the EU and by Americans in the 2016 election represent important precedents to encourage the French down a similar path. The National Front leader regularly cites failed predictions of economic doom before those two votes as reasons to suggest that France won’t face difficulties if she wins power.

“Brexit has not been a disaster,” she said in January. “The economic signals are good.” Her manifesto calls for immediate talks with the rest of the EU with the aim of taking back what she calls “the four sovereignties”: control of borders, economic policy, money and legislation.

While close in tone to what May wants from Brexit, any risk of so-called Frexit could roil the region anew, pushing Britain down the list of priorities and potentially hurting its economy by further destabilizing the outlook for EU growth. It also could prompt the EU to take an even tougher stance with the British to dissuade the French from bolting the bloc too.

“If it’s Le Pen, in a way it’s the best for the U.K. in terms of negotiations,” said Philippe Gudin, chief European economist at Barclays Plc. “Suppose she does win, she would put on the table a comprehensive reform on the EU to bring back sovereignty in member states in several areas, monetary and fiscal in particular. It’s no longer about the U.K. It’s the end of the European project.”

— With assistance by Helene Fouquet

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