France’s attitude so far towards the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership has puzzled observers. Despite the country’s well-known and entrenched scepticism of free trade and globalisation, it is not France, but the big trading nation Germany, that has become the focal point of opposition to TTIP in Europe. But while Paris has been cautious on the issue, TTIP could yet become entangled in the French presidential elections of 2017. This increases the risk of the project’s rejection, argues Elvire Fabry.
Two years after the start of negotiations for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) in July 2013, the evolution of French public opinion on this topic is rather intriguing.
One would have expected that opposition to TTIP would come primarily from France, where public opinion is traditionally wary of trade liberalisation. When Eurobarometer polled Europeans in November 2014, 59 percent of Europeans and the majority of respondents in 25 out of 28 EU member states said they were in favour of TTIP. In that poll 50 percent of the French still held a favourable opinion, and it was the Germans who had become the leading opponents of TTIP, with only 39 percent in support of the project.
The shift in German public opinion in the spring 2014 had not been anticipated by leaders because the German economy is turned towards exports and the German government itself was very active in supporting the launch of negotiations. The scepticism of German public opinion on TTIP remains the primary source of rejection of the project in Europe. Yet attention is now turning towards the possibility that this anti-TTIP dynamic could be transmitted to neighbouring France.
Public debate over TTIP has only truly surfaced in France during the European Parliament election campaign of May 2014, when the minority political parties (Front de gauche, Europe Ecologie – Les Verts, Front National) opposed the negotiations and put the spotlight on the sanitary, phytosanitary, and environmental issues in the project.
While civil society groups and most trade unions engaged actively in opposing TTIP, the two major political parties (UMP, recently renamed The Republicans, and the Socialist party – PS) adopted a cautious approach and remained evasive on the topic. The UMP’s defence of TTIP was discreet and the PS remained in the undecided camp, until the autumn 2014 when both parties became part of a cross-partisan initiative to oppose the planned inclusion of investor-to-state dispute settlement (ISDS) provisions.
The French government for its part has been cautious and shown not to be very comfortable with the whole affair: neither President François Hollande, nor the prime minister, let alone the minister for economic affairs have taken a clear stance on the project.
In September 2014, Matthias Fekl, French minister of state for foreign trade, was still only voicing “reservations” towards ISDS inclusion, pointing out that France had never asked for it to be included in the member state’s negotiating mandate. It is only after the French parliament’s lower and upper houses (National Assembly and Senate) opposed this inclusion in CETA and TTIP that he adopted a firm stance against it in January 2015.
The government’s discretion regarding the transatlantic partnership might have contained cross-partisan opposition to the question of ISDS in France. But it has not brought the majority parties to engage more actively in the public debate on the many other topics addressed in TTIP negotiations.
The joint statement of Matthias Fekl and Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s economy minister, on 21 January 2015, calling for a revision of the ISDS in CETA, has led them to propose the creation of a permanent court, thus paving the way for an alternative option to the traditional ISDS mechanism. The move could help defuse the growing tensions surrounding the European Parliament’s vote, postponed to July or September 2015, on a non-binding resolution on TTIP.
But these tensions have been conducive to growing doubts on the overall benefits of TTIP. While negotiations are likely to last longer than initially announced, the French government’s cautious approach could very well become problematic once an agreement is reached.
Given that the rejection of globalisation, seen as an explanation for Germany’s strong criticism of TTIP, is even stronger in France, opposition to it may well increase in the country over time.
Paris’ cautious approach in this debate can be explained by its memory of the failure of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) in 1998, caused by France’s withdrawal from negotiations due to growing grass-roots opposition. The referendum campaign on the treaty establishing a European Constitution in 2005 was also marked by growing opposition to the construction of Europe among left-wing sympathisers, based primarily on considerations of social and economic nature, and by broader opposition to the liberalising globalisation process.
Sceptical public opinion
A study comparing perceptions of globalisation in eight member states in 2007* indicated that the French were far more pessimistic than their neighbours already back then. The establishment of anti-globalisation movements in France was due primarily, at the time, to their perception that globalisation is above all a “political project which needs to be managed and steered” rather than “an inevitable economic phenomenon on which politics can, or must, exercise an influence,” which was how a majority of respondents perceived it in the rest of Europe.
The French public’s ongoing aversion to globalisation could put the political feasibility of this project into question. In the end public support will depend on whether TTIP is seen as something that makes it possible to “regulate the globalisation process,” or as something that strengthens that process by liberalising trade even further.
By the spring of 2014, a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center suggested that of the seven countries involved in the survey, France is, with Italy, the country in which confidence in international trade has waned most since 2007 and in which people are least convinced that international trade helps create jobs and increase wages.
The Eurobarometer survey conducted a few months later, in November 2014, indicated that within the EU it is the French who continue to harbour the greatest mistrust of globalisation, free trade, competition, and big business.
On the road to the 2017 presidential elections, François Hollande may find himself embarrassed by TTIP’s contents, which for critics could become the new poster child of a poorly-mastered process of globalisation.
Elvire Fabry is Senior Research Fellow at the Jacques Delors Institute in Paris and author of France: a Hotbed of opposition to the TTIP?
* “The Perceptions of Globalisation”, Kairos Future – Foundation for Political Innovation, ed. Elvire Fabry, 2007