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July 2024

[2024 French Legislative Election]
Green Deal, Energy: a Weak France in a German Europe?

Joseph Dellatte
Resident Fellow - Climate, Energy and Environment

Dr. Joseph Dellatte joined Institut Montaigne’s Asia Program in 2022 as Research Fellow for Climate, Energy, and Environment. He specializes in international climate policy and global climate governance, ETS linkage, and political barriers to carbon pricing development in the Northeast Asian region.

What role would a France led by the Rassemblement National play within a Europe reconfigured by elections? What future would await crucial projects related to the energy transition and decarbonization in a sovereignist and Eurosceptic context? Joseph Dellatte analyzes the role Germany might have to assume alone within the EU, and the looming consequences of a "Brexit without Frexit" moment. [This analysis was previously published into French as part of our French Legislative Election Special operation.]

The European elections in France and Germany opened a new significant chapter in European political history. These two countries, economic and demographic pillars of the European Union, saw their governments severely sanctioned in these elections. They now find themselves in a situation where their ability to provide political impetus within the Union has been questioned. This opens up the possibility for other member states as well as the future Commission to gain greater influence, though this situation might only be temporary.

Towards a Sovereignist French Policy?

In France, the results of the European elections have had, for the first time, a monumental impact on national political life: in light of the results, Emmanuel Macron decided to dissolve the National Assembly and call for legislative elections that he is now almost certain to lose.

From the dark chaos provoked by this announcement, a potential coalition could emerge between far-right forces that are nationalist, populist and anti-European, and part of the traditional conservative right. This alliance would embody all the characteristics of a sovereignist coalition, with measures such as ending free movement in Europe for non-Europeans, which implies the re-establishment of national borders.

If such a coalition comes into being, it will necessarily cause major repercussions for Europe. It would also have a historic dimension, closing the door on several decades of governance of France by pro-European forces.

Sovereignism is deeply rooted in France's political history, oscillating between European integration and national withdrawal. After World War II, Charles de Gaulle promoted strong sovereignism, skeptical of the idea of sharing sovereign competences with its neighbors, preferring a "Europe of Nations". This skepticism manifested itself in his rejection of the European Defense Community in 1954, and his veto of the United Kingdom's entry into the EEC. Later, under Giscard d'Estaing and Mitterrand, France largely supported European integration, although the Maastricht Treaty was only ratified in 1992. In the 2000s, sovereignism resurged, notably with the rejection of the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe in 2005, which caused an ideological split on both the left and right. The rise of Emmanuel Macron in 2017 exacerbated this division, consolidating the majority of pro-European forces within a single movement and letting sovereignists dominate the main opposition parties on the right and left.

Sovereignism and Euroscepticism are now hallmarks of both the Rassemblement National (RN, "National Rally") and La France Insoumise (LFI, "France Unbowed"). The RN, for example, vigorously criticizes European institutions and calls for a renewal of national sovereignty in response to what it perceives as a dilution of powers at the Union level. The proposal most characteristic of this ideology is to establish the supremacy of French law over European law, which would imply withdrawal from the EU.

La France Insoumise, on the other hand, denounces the inability to pursue a genuine left-wing policy because of the European treaties, mainly for budgetary reasons and due to a deep aversion to market mechanisms. Therefore, the party proposes to "shoulder the necessary confrontation with the European institutions and establish a balance of power", as well as to use "disobedience" to the treaties to achieve its goals.

Today, the only two political alternatives to an evaporating Macronism, and the two movements that will contest the legislative elections on June 30 and July 7 are either sovereignist and Eurosceptic in nature (the RN), or inclusive of eurosceptic elements (La France Insoumise within a united left).

A political configuration in which the RN prevails (according to current polls, between 225 and 262 seats out of the 289 needed) within an alliance with part of the conservative right (credited with 30 to 40 seats) could lead to a France seeking to block or obstruct the functioning of European institutions, with consequences for the rest of Europe. Above all, this political reality would prevent France from bringing its real weight to bear in European affairs: on crucial issues on the European agenda such as defense policy, industrial policy, or the future of the Green Deal, it could even miss the boat and lose influence.

Germany's Imminent Comeback?

In Germany, the situation is marked by a government coalition in dire straits. The Social Democrat Chancellor has been rejected (his party garnered only 13.9% of the vote in the European elections, behind the far-right AfD), his coalition is riddled with divisions, and the other coalition parties, the Liberals and Greens, are also in great difficulty following the European elections. Indeed, the Greens dropped from 20.50% to 11.9%, and the Liberals are barely above 5% - the government as a whole is slightly over 30%, barely more than the CDU-CSU alone.

Nevertheless, a general election is scheduled for October 2025 - some are already calling for early elections, as in France. In other words, Germany will have a new government in a year's time, whatever the scenario. The CDU, the conservative Christian Democrat party, winner of the European elections despite a significant far-right score in East Germany, seems well-positioned to regain power.

These electoral dynamics in France and Germany have several implications for the future of Europe.

In Germany, the CDU's return to power could mean a strengthening of German influence within the EU. A conservative Germany could thus become Europe's only real political driving force, in the absence of an influential France. In Italy, Giorgia Meloni has emerged from the elections stronger than ever, yet with a highly indebted country, she will remain dependent on her partners and the Commission. Central and Eastern Europe remain divided and grappling with the war in Ukraine. In Spain, Pedro Sánchez is still in power, but his party has fallen behind the Conservatives. Finally, Donald Tusk has come out on top in Poland and is a natural partner for Berlin.

A Germany led by conservatives could quickly become the main driver of the Council of the European Union and the European Council, especially in the face of a Eurosceptic-led France. The German Christian Democrats could potentially hold the presidency of the European Commission, with Ursula von der Leyen likely to be reappointed, and the leadership of the main member state, along with the Federal Chancellery.

Germany would then be forced, with the cooperation of other influential member states such as Donald Tusk's Poland, to assume for the first time its real place as Europe's political leader. This would have far-reaching consequences on decisions regarding Russia and Ukraine, as well as for Europe's industrial and budgetary policies.

What then would be the relationship between a Europe and a Germany under the CDU leadership - and a France that would seek, for example, to break budgetary rules it considers too restrictive?

A "Brexit Without Frexit" Moment?

In France, even if the party declares that it no longer wants to leave the EU or the eurozone, a possible takeover by the Rassemblement National would hamper any new project perceived as favorable to European integration: no joint investment for industrial policy, no levying of Europe's own revenues, all rejected by the RN.

This victory would also probably create significant difficulties in the discussions for the next EU multiannual financial framework which will begin in 2028 and whose negotiations should start in 2025. Indeed the RN is determined to reduce France's financial contribution in order to finance the reduction in VAT on fossil fuels - a measure currently not allowed by EU rules.

Beyond new projects, the RN, by playing the national card, would struggle to reach agreements on a European scale on most subjects (on this subject, see our latest note). This is particularly true for crucial issues for France and Europe.

The most significant of these issues is energy policy; consider, for example, a low-carbon directive supposed to give nuclear power a place in Europe, a project championed by France. This project would not see the light of day, however, since, if we are to believe the party's program, it categorically rejects "European interference in matters of energy sovereignty".

Another major point in the RN's policy is its proposal - still unclear - to leave the European electricity market "in order to reduce consumers' bills". It advocates a return to "French tariffs", which implies that a significant part of the electricity cost would fall on the state budget. These decisions would isolate France by depriving it of essential European initiatives for the continent's decarbonization and energy competitiveness, such as the integration of electricity grids, and all policies aimed at making the production of decarbonized energies more flexible.

More broadly, and contrary to the idea that returning to a "French tariff" would "lower the bill", the integrated European market in fact enables greater stability and security of electricity supply, promotes more competitive prices thanks to competition between suppliers, and facilitates the energy transition thanks to the interconnection of networks. Leaving this market would isolate France, reduce private investment, and ultimately lead to higher electricity prices for consumers. In addition, it would jeopardize European climate objectives, limiting the collaboration needed to develop sustainable and innovative energy solutions.

Beyond energy, the RN opposes or hesitates on projects that France has strongly supported but that still require implementation in Brussels. This includes industrial policy under the Green Deal, which the RN rejects. This is also the case for the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM), for which the RN abstained, before now supporting in its program the "implementation of a true European carbon border tax, an instrument of intelligent protectionism by taxing finished and semi-finished products, rather than raw materials as imposed by the EU".

This reality will also make it difficult to implement its program at the national level, and will leave France unable to use European institutions to its advantage. Such a situation, of course, would reduce France's influence within the EU far below its real weight. A "Brexit" moment without a "Frexit".

Blockages and Dialogues: What European Policy?

The European Union is of course not composed solely of France and Germany; the Commission itself holds decisive power of proposal.  Nevertheless, politically, we need a driving force within the European Council (the French seat will still be occupied by Emmanuel Macron until the end of his mandate) and the Council of the European Union (which could be occupied by ministers from an RN government). This political engine is formed by coalitions of member states, such that texts can move forward. It is precisely at this level that blockages and complications can arise in the configuration of a Europhobic France.

Unless it completely renounces its ideological matrix after the elections, a France led by sovereignist and Eurosceptic forces would be unable to effectively dialogue within European institutions. Out of sheer domestic political necessity, it would be tempted to try to block the European institutions whenever it could.

Even if it does not share the same values, nor the same ideological fabric, such a France could on certain issues align itself with other European countries with which it would have occasional acquaintances - Hungary, Slovakia and Giorgia Meloni's Italy. It is at the level of the Council of the European Union that these countries could exert a blockage. This institution requires not only a majority of votes (one per country), but also a majority weighted by the population of the member states (65% of the population). With France, the EU's second-largest demographic weight, this configuration would offer greater blocking potential. This strategy will not be evident on every issue, but it could influence or block part of the European process.

This is particularly true for all issues relating to Europe's ambition to transition to a post-carbon economy.

One concern is the European directive on ETS 2, the new carbon market covering transports and buildings in Europe. This directive has not yet been transposed into French law and should soon be submitted to the National Assembly. The RN rejects this text and the application of carbon pricing, which it describes as punitive ecology. Despite the legal obligation to do so, it seems difficult to envisage the adoption of this text in a parliament with an RN absolute or relative majority, which would jeopardize a considerable part of the European decarbonization architecture. This non-transposition could have potentially serious consequences for other European texts essential to Europe's decarbonization, such as the end of free quotas on ETS 1 (linked to the introduction of ETS 2) and the implementation of carbon border adjustment.

With an RN-led France, a blocking minority would also exist in the EU Council in the event of the reopening of one or more parts of the legislative package linked to the Green Deal. It is a safe bet that the strategy of the Green Deal's supporters (the Greens, the S&Ds, part of the EPP and Renew) would be not to reopen this legislative package for fear that France, in coalition with other climate-skeptic states, would vote to lower the ambition of these laws, which frame the EU's action to achieve the -55% greenhouse gas target by 2030. The proposal regarding the 2040 targets is in troubled waters.

This would prevent the reopening of debates on the rules of the Green Deal and therefore not allow them to be amended, even if necessary. It is hard to see how a Europe-wide industrial policy could emerge under these conditions. This could potentially have considerable repercussions on the continent's ability to prepare for the post-carbon era via a common, coordinated industrial policy. One example is the Antwerp Declaration, which brought together many of the continent's industrialists and called for a genuine industrial policy in favor of decarbonization, which would be difficult to translate into legislation. More broadly, the implementation of the Net Zero Industrial Act - which aims to repatriate the production of goods deemed critical in Europe - although partly protectionist, a subject dear to the party's heart, could also be compromised as contrary to the vision of the French far right, which does not see decarbonization as a major factor in tomorrow's global economy.

France's Loss of Influence?

This inability to cooperate constructively will also undermine France's traditional role in multilateral arenas. France has often played an important role in these forums, such as the Paris Agreement on climate or efforts to support Ukraine. The consequences would be a temporary reshaping of the French vision of international affairs, to the detriment of multilateralism.

In its program and speeches, the RN considers multilateral arenas to be harmful, preferring a more "bilateral" approach when necessary to national interests. This perspective overlooks the importance of these formats for dealing with the crucial issues of our time.

Although the RN proposes "ecological diplomacy" aimed at "promoting French know-how in decarbonized energy" (nuclear power), it loses interest in climate and decarbonization issues. He also denounces "punitive ecology" and asserts its determination to dismantle the renewable energies sector - the 2022 program calls for dismantling existing wind turbines and stopping the construction of solar power. This measure is coupled with a desire to drastically reduce VAT on fossil fuels (from 20% to 5.5%) - an indirect subsidy to OPEC countries and Russia.  

Beyond not wanting to actively fight climate change at home, the RN's "ecological diplomacy" fails to take into account, in its program, the economic challenges that decarbonization will eventually impose on the French economy. Ignoring these challenges could exacerbate the country's economic and environmental difficulties, thereby compromising its ability to adapt to the demands of a post-carbon economy. With these measures, it is clear that the RN is adopting a climate-skeptic policy that will have consequences for France's place in the world.

It is highly unlikely, therefore, that a France led by an RN that denounces"climate terrorism" will engage more in favor of international cooperation on this issue - France's action in this field would then be marginalized. With the prospect of a new Trump administration, this situation would deal a severe blow to multilateral climate action, of which France has often been a champion. The potential alignment between a Trump administration and an RN government in France would further weaken international efforts to tackle climate change.

In summary, France could, of its own accord, be progressively weakened outside its borders, and probably destabilized at home. Germany, with a potential Conservative comeback, could be forced to assume its role as the Union's main political and economic player. Europe's political future over the next few years could therefore be largely decided between Brussels and Berlin.

Paris, on the other hand, would navigate an era of instability and inward-looking attitudes, while many crucial issues dear to the French vision loom in Europe. These include the future of European industry in a decarbonizing world, the future of European defense, and trade relations in a time of extraordinary global uncertainty.

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