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Under-fire Hollande will use May talks to avoid Frexit

May to meet Hollande at critical time for French President in build-up to 2017 presidential elections.

Today, Thursday 21st July, Theresa May will meet with French President François Hollande for the first time since taking over as Prime Minister. Coming in the wake of the attack in Nice last Thursday, this will be a welcome foray into foreign policy for Hollande, whose popularity has sunk to its lowest levels yet. Fearing demands for a referendum on France’s membership of the EU—championed by the extreme-right Front National—Hollande will avoid specifics on the post-Brexit nature of Europe.

Political figures in France from across the political spectrum including the centre-right Mayor of Calais Natacha Bouchart and Socialist Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault have painted a bleak picture of Britain’s role in the future of Europe outside of the EU. Despite Boris Johnson’s assertion last week that Ayrault had written to the Foreign Secretary in warm terms, the public message from French politicians is clear: expect no quarter from us. In his own deliberately obtuse way, we should expect Hollande to follow suit. Having witnessed David Cameron’s rapid fall from power, Hollande will fight to ward off any calls for a referendum on the continuity of French membership of the European Union. This may well prove one of many key battle lines ahead of the 2017 presidential elections.

Indeed, for Hollande avoiding Frexit is very much a matter of political life or death. Socialist voters argue that he has failed to implement the sorts of meaningful reforms that would improve the standard of living of French people—where, for example, are the 60, 000 new teaching posts he promised in 2012 to help to improve social aspirations? There are other figures in his own political party who might appear, in the minds of the electorate, to be the more likely presidential figure in the 2017 presidential elections. Manuel Valls, the hardline Prime Minister, has been uncompromising in the face of protests in response to the unpopular labour reforms which have sought to make hiring and firing much easier for French firms. Valls recently declared that the French should ‘get used’ to living with terror in the aftermath of last week’s atrocities; an apparently thoughtless comment that may well have undermined any eventual bid for the Elysée. Hollande also faces the very real threat of his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, who has resigned as leader of the centre-right ‘Republican’ party ahead of the primary elections to decide a presidential candidate in 2017. Finally, there are fears that Marine Le Pen, who oversaw the best ever-electoral showing of the Front National in the 2015 regional elections, despite failing to be elected as leader of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais regional council, could well beat Hollande if he was chosen as the centre-left candidate next year.

In many ways, Theresa May’s visit could not have come at a better time for Hollande, who has overseen a particularly turbulent time as President. A welcome excuse to appear an international statesman and to be seen to be working closely with Britain to prevent future terrorist attacks on French soil, this Franco-British meeting could also provide the stage for Hollande to take on the Front National over the dangers of leaving the EU. Yet having overseen four terrorist attacks along with public sector strikes and mass demonstrations in opposition to labour reforms since taking power in 2012, in many ways the meeting might prove too little too late to save Hollande’s political career.

Dr David Lees, Teaching Fellow in French Studies, Centre for Modern Languages and Cultures

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