Meet the French party who want to take France out of the EU

Meet the French party who want to take France out of the EU

Since the sweeping rise to power of pro-EU populist Emmanuel Macron in this month’s French Presidential election, the broad narrative has been that any slim chances of France choosing to follow Britain out of the EU exit door in its own ‘Frexit’ moment have been put firmly to rest.

Not so, says Pierre-Alexandre Greil, the candidate for the eurosceptic UPR (Union Populaire Républicaine) party for the expat constituency of Northern Europe in the upcoming French legislative elections this June.

“Our democracy has been stolen. The European Commission is unelected; the European Parliament is just there to give rubber stamps,” he says.

Fundamentally, the UPR are souverainistes. They have a patriotic vision of a self-governing France with a strong state – Gaullism, in essence. Indeed, they have a stronger claim than most to the political legacy of the architect of modern France – De Gaulle himself was notoriously hostile towards European supranationalism, as Greil points out, while the UPR also shares De Gaulle’s suspicion of American power, favouring a withdrawal from NATO as well as the EU and the euro.

Surely French expats in London are not going to be the most enthusiastic supporters of Frexit, I ask. “It is a challenge amongst expats,” he admits. “95% of them support Macron.” But that has not stopped 12% of the UPR’s members being expats – from 107 countries around the world, Greil tells me. In the UK alone, they have close to 125 fully paid-up party members, including 68 in London. If anything, he has found expats to be more open-minded and receptive to challenging the pro-EU status quo in French politics.

Pierre-Alexandre Greil is the UPR parliamentary candidate for Northern Europe

Greil himself has been an expat in London for 11 years, studying at the London School of Economics before going to work as a chartered accountant for EY. Briefly a supporter of the mainstream French right-wing party, he joined the UPR three years ago, inspired by the speeches of its charismatic leader, François Asselineau. He is realistic about his party’s chances in the upcoming election. Although the Presidential election has already taken place, under the French system, this is then followed by two rounds of legislative elections where delegates are elected to the French Parliament. Their broad goal has to be to aim for the vote threshold after which French political parties receive a major boost in terms of funding rules and media coverage, although admittedly the UPR are still some way off reaching that.

“Fundamentally, it’s about public education,” he says. “There can be a shift in public opinion when more and more people correctly realise that the EU is the cause of many problems in the French economy and French society, but we need popular education which can help to detoxify the issue of Frexit in voters’ minds. People have been hypnotised by myths like the idea that ‘Europe is peace’. And of course, there is the natural fear of change.” YouGov polling from last year showed that if France held its own EU referendum, 44% would vote to remain while 31% would vote to leave, but it is worth remembering that these figures aren’t a million miles away from what a number of polls in the UK were showing only three or four years ago.

Of course, the elephant in the room is that there was already another pro-Frexit party running in the recent election – the Front National led by Marine Le Pen, who placed second behind Emmanuel Macron. Greil is quick to draw a sharp distinction between his party and the Front National.

“We have absolutely nothing to do with them,” he tells me. “They play very strongly on identity politics. They are quite happy to be a white club.” By contrast, the UPR has many members from immigrant backgrounds, particularly from North Africa. “They see a party that is respectful of all of France,” he says. Clearly, the souverainiste principles of the UPR have nothing in common with the Front National’s ugly brand of nationalism.

Greil even goes as far as to accuse the Front National of being a “scarecrow”. He claims that it suits the French political establishment to have an extreme party, nominally in favour of patriotism and souverainisme, but that combines this with making “outrageous statements that alienate the vast majority of voters, and rightly so.”

“When you combine the two,” he says, “it simply serves to discredit patriotism.” He argues that the unelectable Le Pen family has been the French elite’s best “insurance policy” against ever having to have their pro-EU consensus seriously challenged. Interestingly, the Front National have now abandoned their pro-Frexit stance since their defeat in the presidential elections.

Naturally, he is positive about Brexit. “It gives us a precedent,” he says. “In the next few years, the French people are probably going to see that everything is fine in the UK, that Britain is thriving.” However, he says that there is no strong feeling in France that Britain needs to be punished to set an example to other European countries considering following the UK.

“There is a view amongst certain circles in Brussels that wants to punish Britain, because they feel that the life of the EU is at stake,” he says. “But I don’t think the people share that view at all.” Time will tell whether Greil is right. But in the meantime he has an election of his own to fight. I thank him for his time and wish him well for the campaign.

(Photocredit: Andrew Fackler)