By Moïra Tourneur, student in European Affairs at Paris-Sorbonne University and EST ambassador to France. Feel free to contact Moïra at


France is one of the six founding countries of European cooperation. Moreover, the idea of uniting European countries within a community of common interests came from two Frenchmen, Robert Schuman and Jean Monnet. It might then be thought that the French have been dedicated Europeans from the very start. Yet, the relationship between France and the process of European integration has been far from simple since 1950.


The French founding fathers of European integration

Presented in the Salon de l’Horloge at the French Foreign Ministry on May 9th 1950, the Schuman declaration is considered to be the birth act of the construction of a united Europe. Indeed, the French proposal to create a European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) laid the foundations for the process of European integration – which is still ongoing today, although the international context has changed. The declaration of May 9th, delivered by French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman, was written by Jean Monnet, the Commissioner-General of the French National Planning Board. This proposal to place the French and West German production of coal and steel under one supranational High Authority independent of governments came as a much needed response to the difficulties of the period: the German question needed to be settled, and there was also a need to serve social and economic goals in post-war France. The idea of overseeing Germany within Europe instead of leaving its supervision entirely to France was a way to ease tensions between the two countries, which especially concerned the German mining areas of the Saar and the Ruhr that France coveted for their high economic potential. The Saar was indeed under the authority of a French High Commissioner and was part of an economic and monetary union with France. Regarding the Ruhr, steel and coal production were regulated in the region through the International Authority for the Ruhr, which France was seeking to use to exploit the resources of the Ruhr. The pooling of steel and coal production in France and Germany proposed on May 9th was therefore a way to create common interests and cooperation between France and Germany. The Franco-German “old-age opposition”[1] could thus be eliminated, which would be a first step to pacifying Europe. In short, the main aim of the Schuman declaration was preserving peace in Europe.

However, the declaration was not only motivated by the will to address the challenges of the time: the founding fathers of the European Community genuinely believed in Europe. Robert Schuman considered Europe as “a spiritual and cultural community”[2] and thought of the European Coal and Steel Community as the first step in a broader process of integration which would lead to “the federation of Europe”[3]. As for Jean Monnet, he committed himself to the European construction as early as the 1940es, until the end of his life. The instigator of the Schuman plan, who also reflected on the project of a European Defence Community alongside with René Pleven[4], was President of the ECSC’s High Authority until the mid-1950s. At that time, he resigned from his post to focus on the promotion of a European revival and to create the Action Committee for the United States of Europe, a group consisting of representatives from political parties and unions in the six countries of the ECSC. Jean Monnet also took an active part in the negotiations on the Rome Treaties which would establish Euratom and the Common Market in 1957. In 1976, the “Builder of United Europe” (as Pascal Fontaine called Jean Monnet[5]) was awarded the title of Honorary Citizen of Europe by the European Council.

Two Frenchmen are thus behind the first European community. Yet, France has since not always had a leading role in the building of Europe.


France, a driving force or a brake to the process of European integration?

French governments have adopted various European policies since the beginning of the European construction, making France a key player in European integration at many occasions. In 1969, President Georges Pompidou suggested that European leaders should meet at a Summit Conference in The Hague to break out of the paralysis in which Europe found itself. The process of European integration was relaunched through the threefold policy of “completion, deepening, enlargement”. Accordingly, the decisions taken at The Hague allowed for the opening of negotiations between the Community and the four applicant countries of the time, including the United Kingdom, whose access had been thwarted until then by General de Gaulle. The European Community was also given a new impetus by the next French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who strengthened the Franco-German duo to make it the engine of the European integration process. The French President and the German Chancellor developed strong bilateral links which enabled them to find compromises when they disagreed. This eventually led to the 1978 Franco-German proposal for the European Monetary System, which aim was to create a zone of monetary stability in Europe. Besides, the European Council of Heads of State or Government was established during the 1974 Paris Summit on the initiative of President Giscard d’Estaing – European leaders were now supposed to meet regularly to share their views and take basic policy decisions together. The socialist François Mitterrand, President of the French Republic after Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, became a great architect of European unity alongside his German counterpart Helmut Kohl and the French President of the European Commission Jacques Delors[6]. They contributed strongly to the 1986 Single European Act, a treaty that aimed to reinforce the Community institutions and economic integration. In addition to the development of European cooperation programmes such as Eureka or Eurocorps, President Mitterrand paved the way for the European Union and the single currency.

France has nonetheless also been a barrier to European integration when the process was not consistent with France’s national views. In 1954, the French National Assembly refused to ratify the treaty for the European Defence Community – while the idea of constituting a European army including Germany originally came from the French Premier René Pleven. As a result, the project for a European Political Community had to be abandoned as well. To put the point another way, the failure of the Pleven plan caused a brutal stop in the integration process until the Messina Conference and the Rome Treaties. Charles de Gaulle himself, who was yet in favour of Europe, hindered a further progress of European integration when he felt it contradicted his conception of Europe. Indeed, General de Gaulle advocated an intergovernmental Europe based on the union of sovereign States (Fouchet Plan I[7]) independent of the United States, which was quite inconsistent with his partners’ federalist conception of Europe. Moreover, his priority was above all to defend what he considered to be the interests of France. He was thus antagonistic to Euratom, which he regarded to be likely to interfere with national defence issues. Similarly, he twice vetoed Britain’s application to join the European Community, in particular because he wanted to preserve French interests related to the Common Agricultural Policy. Furthermore, he boycotted the meetings at the Council of Ministers from July 1965 to January 1966, which brought negotiations to a deadlock in the Community. Indeed, the President of the European Commission Walter Hallstein had put forward major institutional reforms to the European Community regarding voting procedures within the Council of Ministers as well as the budgetary powers of the European Commission and Parliament. Those proposals were contrary to General de Gaulle’s conceptions. As a consequence, he recalled the French Permanent Representative in Brussels to Paris until an agreement was reached. The 1966 Luxembourg Compromise implemented a veto power to member states when vital national interests were at stake[8] and put an end to the empty chair crisis.

Forty years later, in 2005, France said “No” to the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe – and interestingly enough, the stop put to further integration came from French citizens, not their governmental representatives, this time.


But what about public opinion?

The French people have been consulted only three times about European integration since the process began: in 1972, 68 per cent of French voters approved of Denmark, Ireland, Norway and the United Kingdom joining the European Economic Community. Twenty years later, the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty which formed the European Union proved to be more difficult, with only 51 per cent of French citizens voting for the Treaty. And in 2005, the French rejected the European Constitutional Treaty by a majority of 54.7 per cent of the votes.

From the 1950es until the end of the 80es, French public opinion broadly supported European integration. According to opinion polls, about six or seven in ten people (depending on the year) declared themselves in favour of European unity from 1947 to 1970, and 86 per cent of the respondents in 1989 were “very much in favour” or “rather in favour” of European construction: French were therefore the second highest supporters of European unification in 1989[9]. However, the “permissive consensus”[10] has begun to erode from the 1990es – the vote result of the 1992 Maastricht Treaty Referendum is one example. In 1997, only 46 per cent of those questioned considered French membership of the EU as a good thing; in 1994, 77 per cent of the French population thought that national interests took precedence over European integration, as opposed to only 19 per cent who considered European integration as a priority[11]. In line with this, the French “no” vote in 2005 can be understood as the expression of people’s doubts and fears regarding the current process of European integration – which greatly changed with the end of Cold War and the major 2004 enlargement wave. Although more than 65 per cent of the French surveyed in April and May 2005 stated their attachment to European integration[12], the French citizens keep preferring national sovereignty to the reinforcement of EU’s decision-making powers.

Consequently, French public opinion concerning Europe remains characterized by a national, sovereigntist dimension, which has sometimes been significant as well in French European policy since 1950. It is nevertheless worth noting that the French are becoming more and more disinterested in European affairs. The constant rise of abstention in European Parliament elections is quite telling: 57.7 per cent of the French voters did not go the polls in 2014, compared to 57.2 in 2004[13]. Of course, those high abstention rates can be interpreted as the expression of increasing Euroscepticism in a tense economic and social context – but they could also signal that French voters are simply not educated enough about European issues. As a matter of fact, Europhiles in France appear to be mostly graduates in higher education, senior executives and intellectuals. Furthermore, 80 per cent of French people considered themselves ill-informed about Europe in 2007[14], and in 2013, 67 per cent said they did not know their rights as EU citizens[15].

Given the results of the recent referendums and elections regarding the EU in France, one may wonder what French citizens would vote for if the Frexit referendum that Mrs. Le Pen is calling for[16] actually were to be held. Do the French feel sufficiently European to keep their country involved in the integration process? And are they sufficiently informed about the EU to feel European? It can be assumed that people in France could be more interested in European issues if they were better informed on what the European Union concretely means and what it brings to its member states.

[1] The Schuman Declaration. May 9th, 1950.

Available at: (accessed: 02/09/2016).

[2] Published in the European Yearbook, Vol. 1. The Hague. 1955.

[3] The Schuman Declaration. May 9th, 1950.

Available at: (accessed: 02/09/2016).

[4] René Pleven (born 1901 – died 1993), French politician of the Fourth Republic. He was twice President of the Council of Ministers (1950 – 1951 and 1951 – 1952) and drew up a plan for a unified European army including West Germany, France, Italy and the Benelux countries.

[5] Fontaine, Pascal. Jean Monnet: Actualité d’un bâtisseur de l’Europe unie. Paris Lausanne: Economica, Fondation Jean Monnet pour l’Europe, Centre de recherches européennes. “Les Cahiers Rouges”. 2013.

[6] Mr. Delors was bestowed the title of Honorary Citizen of Europe in 2015.

[7] More on the Fouchet Plans on the CVCE website, available at: (accessed: 08/09/2016).

[8] The arrangement stipulates that “where, in the case of decisions which may be taken by majority vote on a proposal of the Commission, very important interests of one or more partners are at stake, the Members of the Council will endeavour, within a reasonable time, to reach solutions which can be adopted by all the Members of the Council while respecting their mutual interests and those of the Community“.

Council press release on the arrangements for cooperation between the Council and the Commission. January 29th 1966. Available at: (accessed: 02/09/2016).

[9] Dulphy Anne and Christine Manigand. “L’opinion française vers l’euroconscience et le désenchantement” in Dulphy Anne and Christine Manigand. Les Opinions publiques face à l’Europe communautaire: Entre cultures nationales et horizon européen. Bruxelles: P.I.E.- Peter Lang. “European Policy” Series. 2004, p. 25.

[10] Ibid., p. 25.

[11] Ibid., p. 31-33.

[12] Sauger, Nicolas, Sylvain Brouard and Emiliano Grossman. Les Français contre l’Europe ? Les sens du referendum du 29 mai 2005. Paris: Les presses de Science Po. 2007, p. 98.

[13] 2004 European elections, results in France. Available at: (accessed 08/09/2016).

2014 European elections, results in France. Available at: (accessed 08/09/2016).

[14] Eurobaromètre standard, 67. Spring 2007. National report, France, p. 32.

Available at: (accessed: 10/09/2016).

[15] Eurobaromètre standard, 79. Spring 2013. First results, p. 8.

Available at: (accessed: 10/09/2016).

[16] Faye, Olivier. Marine Le Pen exulte et réclame un “Frexit”. Le Monde. June 24th 2016.

Available at: (accessed: 10/09/2016).




  • Bossuet, Gérard. Faire l’Europe sans défaire la France: 60 ans de politique d’unité européenne des gouvernements et des présidents de la République française (1943 – 2003). Bruxelles: P.I.E.-Peter Lang. “Euroclio. Etudes et documents”. 2005.
  • Bossuet, Gérard, “La culture politique des dirigeants français face au défi de la construction européenne (1943 – 2005)” in Bitsch, Marie-Thérèse, Wilfied Loth and Charles Barthel. Cultures politiques, opinions publiques et intégration européenne. Bruxelles: E. Bruylant. 2007.
  • Dulphy, Anne and Christine Manigand. “L’opinion française vers l’euroconscience et le désenchantement” in Dulphy, Anne and Christine Manigand. Les Opinions publiques face à l’Europe communautaire: Entre cultures nationales et horizon européen. Bruxelles: P.I.E.- Peter Lang. “European Policy” Series. 2004.
  • Eldin, Grégoire, Pierre Fournié, Agnès Moinet-Le Menn and Georges-Henri Soutou, L’Europe de Robert Schuman. Paris: Presses de l’Université de Paris-Sorbonne. “Mondes contemporains”. 2001.
  • Fontaine, Pascal. Jean Monnet: Actualité d’un bâtisseur de l’Europe unie. Paris Lausanne: Economica, Fondation Jean Monnet pour l’Europe, Centre de recherches européennes. “Les Cahiers Rouges”. 2013.
  • Sauger, Nicolas, Sylvain Brouard and Emiliano Grossman. Les Français contre l’Europe ? Les sens du referendum du 29 mai 2005. Paris: Les presses de Science Po. 2007.



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