Apr 21, 2017

How Marine Le Pen could take France out of the EU

Rebecca Zisser / Axios

The first round of the French presidential election is this weekend and far-right populist Marine Le Pen has been near the top of the polls. She's likely to make it to the second round, where most pundits expect her to lose — just like Brexit and Donald Trump.

Focus on this: If Trump's victory taught us anything, it should be that Le Pen certainly might win the French presidency. But Trump taught us something else — talking the talk is easy, but following through once in power can be much harder. Le Pen's call to destroy the "anti-democratic monster" of the EU works well as a sound bite, but implementing it won't be easy.

Le Pen's plan upon assuming the presidency, from her manifesto:

  • A 6-month negotiation period to revamp France's place in the EU and roll back its influence — ending the visa-free Schengen Zone and giving nations an option to revert to their own currencies.
  • After 6 months, Le Pen would hold a referendum to leave the EU, only recommending against Frexit if her desired conditions are met.

Tougher than it sounds: Frexit would be more difficult than Le Pen lets on because France's participation in the EU is codified in its constitution.

  • In order to amend the constitution, Le Pen would need both houses of Parliament to approve an amendment. To make it official, she can either send it back to a joint session of Parliament that requires 60% approval or, per her promise, put it to the people in a referendum.
  • But Le Pen's National Front has just 4 members of Parliament right now — 2 in the National Assembly and 2 in the Senate — out of 925 total seats. Barring landslide gains in June's legislative elections, it's borderline inconceivable that she could get a Frexit amendment approved in both houses, let alone secure 60% of the votes in a joint session.

An alternative path: Charles de Gaulle circumvented the constitutional procedures surrounding referenda in 1962 when he took the question of a direct presidential vote to the people. He utilized a section of the constitution that allows the prime minister — selected by the president — to request a referendum on the basis of "the organization of public powers." There's now a constitutional provision requiring such changes to go in front of a constitutional council, but that might be a fight Le Pen would relish.

  • Will she hear the people sing? The European Commission's latest Eurobarometer says that 29% of French are positive about the EU, 39% are neutral, and 31% are negative, but when faced with the stark question of leaving the EU last month, 66% of French citizens said they'd stay in.

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