French Priorities: a forgotten social agenda

Expectations are high regarding the French Presidency. Three years after the French ‘No’ vote to the Constitutional Treaty and six months after the Lisbon Treaty ratification by parliament, in a tense economic and social climate, the French Presidency is somehow seen as a way to reconcile the French people with the European Union. In January 2008, a poll from “IFOP” showed that 61 percent of French people thought that the French Presidency should have positive effects on France and its influence in Europe, 30 percent think that there will be no particular effects, and 9 percent believe there will be negative effects.[1]
 
The French government announced that its main priorities during its six month presidency would be: energy/climate, immigration, defence and the future of the Common Agricultural Policy, but also economic growth, unemployment and the Mediterranean Union. This immediately generated a strong reaction by the opposition (left-wing) parties, which have been focusing on the importance of inclusive social policies and good public services. Former Prime Minister Lionel Jospin opened the discussion in March after a consultation visit with the current President, Nicolas Sarkozy. On that occasion he declared that, in order to reconcile the European peoples with the EU, focusing on its social dimension was necessary.[2]
 
This opinion is strongly defended by all left-wing parties. On July 1st 2008, a large coalition led by François Hollande (Socialist), Marie-George Buffet (Communist), and Jean-Pierre Chevènement (MRC[3]) released a common declaration establishing priorities, according to the left, for the French Presidency. They insisted on the importance of implementing social policy, preserving public services, and advocated for a harmonisation of social policies.[4] However, this vision is not shared by Nicolas Sarkozy, who recently declared: “We have the best social protection system in Europe. You certainly do not want me to compromise it with the others”.[5]
 
Still, these matters seem very important for ‘organised civil society’. A study has taken place within different organisations (namely companies, trade unions, NGOs, local institutions, and think tanks).[6] It revealed that most of them were determined to influence the agenda of the French Presidency. This study also pointed to the main convergences and divergences between the government and the civil society priorities. The main convergence is the climate change issue: all parties agree that struggle against CO2 emissions should be on top of the agenda. Another issue is that of ‘Europe – protection’; if the government sees it only from an economic perspective, ‘civil society’ is also waiting for progress in terms of specific forms of general interest, and a more accurate protection of the EU’s interests in the globalisation framework.[7]
 
Finally, the recent poll from “IFOP” showed that three of the priorities of the French Presidency (defence, immigration and energy) were not viewed as such by the French.[8] Their priorities are rather the environment and sustainable development (27 percent), consumer protection, defence of European enterprises (20 percent), and immigration (11 percent), which differs slightly from the priorities set by the government.
 
The European External Action Service: an organisation still to be defined
 
The question of the European External Action Service (EEAS) and its physiognomy has not been commented on a lot in France thus far. Nevertheless, according to the Lisbon Treaty, the member states have to fix its composition, perimeter and financing and many different options are currently foreseen by the various member states.
 
The EEAS ‘perimeter’, or the different services from the European Commission to be integrated in this new structure, is a very delicate question. In a recent report presented to the “Assemblée Nationale”, it is argued that the idea of an extensive delimitation of the competences (i.e., including the current DG External Relations, Europeaid Cooperation Office, DG Trade and even DG Environment) cannot be considered favourably, notably because it could lead to a ‘de-communautarisation’ of some policies.[9] This report suggests that the EEAS should be composed of the Council competent services, DG Relex and EU delegations officials. It is also argued that a compromise between the restrictive and the extensive definition could be found by agreeing on a restricted perimeter, while placing the European Commissioners for Enlargement, External Aid and External Trade under the High Representative’s authority. This framework could guarantee the coherence of the EU’s external action. Finally, the report recommends making sure that the credits corresponding to shared competences are fungibles, which would mean abounding European Security and Defence Policy credits.
 
With regards to these issues, the French right-wing MEP, Alain Lamassoure, put forward his personal ideas. Firstly, he considered that the EEAS should be a unified service, with clearly defined competences between the Council and the European Commission (for instance, five different missions can be found in Kosovo at the present moment). His second recommendation was that every diplomatic service should send its best officials to the new external action service, “otherwise, this won’t be a European diplomacy; it will be a ‘28th diplomacy’ additional to the 27 already existing”[10]. But these changes are not supposed to affect bilateral diplomacies: a clear distinction needs to be made between EU diplomatic missions outside and inside the EU. Alain Lamassoure’s last comment – a more controversial point – was that the use of terms like ‘embassies’ and ‘ambassadors’ should be abandoned inside the EU. Relations between the European countries are not diplomatic, he says, it is common work inside the EU.
 
Finally, for the Foreign Affairs Minister, Bernard Kouchner, this service should not emanate only from the Commission, because this could lead to the gradual eclipse of member states’ policies. He argued that one of the priorities of the French Presidency would be to maintain these national policies.[11]



[1] Opinion poll, “IFOP” for Touteleurope.fr, January 2008.

[2] Le Point: Sarkozy consulte Jospin sur la Présidence Française de l’UE, 18/04/2008.

[3] Movement républicain et citoyen.

[4] AFP: Présidence de l’UE: déclaration commune Hollande, Buffet, Chevènement, 01/07/2008.

[5] France 3: Public Allocution, 01/07/2008.

[6] EurActiv: Résultats de l’enquête sur les attentes et propositions pour la Présidence française de l’UE, 03.12.2007, availble under. . (last access: 29/08/2008).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Opinion poll, “IFOP” for Touteleurope.fr, January 2008.

[9] Roland Blum: Rapport d’information déposé par la Commission des Affaires Etrangères sur l’avenir de la politique étrangère et de sécurité commune et de son financement, Assemblée Nationale, 16/10/2007.

[10] EurActiv: Traité de Lisbonne : le service diplomatique soulève des questions, 13/05/2008, available under: (last access: 29/08/2008).

[11] Assemblée Nationale: Compte rendu intégral des débats, Séance du 14/05/2008, available under: (last access 29/08/2008).