The French ‘maximalist’ view on Social Europe

Article first published by Clingendael in June 2016. 

Since the early days of European integration, French policy-makers and commentators have held maximalist views on Social Europe. In 1989, François Mitterrand famously said: “Europe will be social, or will not be”. The dominant picture is one of fear of foreign competition and accusations of heartless neighbours. The French like to think they are the only ones to defend the human face of European integration. Crucially, there is little recognition of and reflection on the German and Norther European lack of trust in their Southern partners. France’s approach to Social Europe can be categorised in three groups of claims and demands.
Upward harmonisation of social conditions
The first set dates back to the negotiations of the Rome Treaty, during which the French government secured a social policy chapter. They did so under the pressure of French employers’ federations who feared labour cost competition from other member states. The idea that market integration brings about unfair competition and ultimately leads to a social race to the bottom, or ‘social dumping’, is very present in the French view on Europe and globalisation despite only patchy evidence. The development of EU social standards in employment and working conditions was seen by Jacques Delors as instrumental to winning French support for further market integration. The 2005 referendum on the EU’s Constitutional treaty was lost partly on the perception that the EU was a market that left ordinary people unprotected.

Stronger regulation of labour mobility
The discourse on Social Europe has become broader over the last decade in the context of the Eastern enlargement and the Eurozone crisis. On the one hand, enlargement and enhanced labour mobility have created a new type of social problems which the French government has actively tried to address at EU level. Contrary to the UK, where the debate is on EU migrants settling down permanently, the French put most of the emphasis on posted workers. France receives comparatively many more posted workers and many less permanent EU migrants than the UK. Because they are not entitled to the same salary level and employers do not pay social contributions for them, posted workers are often seen as steeling jobs away from French workers, especially in sectors such as construction, transportation and hospitality. Therefore, the revamp of the posted workers directive, first through the 2014 ‘enforcement directive, and today with the new Commission proposal for a fully-fledged revision, has been seen as positive move in Paris.
Financial solidarity towards the least advantaged
On the other hand, the Eurozone debt crises have prompted claims for financial solidarity from creditor to debtor countries. As the French view generally goes, Germany and Norther European nations should do more to support domestic demand and contribute to insurance or solidarity mechanisms to the benefit of peripheral countries.  Keeping Greece in the euro area against intentions of exclusion attributed to Germany, and pushing for greater flexibility in the application of fiscal rules, have been priorities of the centre-left government recently. François Hollande’s support to the Youth Employment Initiative – a programme providing support for youth guarantee schemes in regions eligible to the European social fund – in the negotiations over the 2014-2020 Multiannual Financial Framework should also be read in this light.
The blind spots of a conversation
It is clear that France occasionally succeeds in advancing its goals. Yet, these achievements are seen as the bare minimum by those demanding more social Europe, and seem to have little political impact. More problematically, the debate on Social Europe is confused.  French calls for greater solidarity lack clarity as to their objective. President Hollande has talked several times about the creation of a Eurozone budget or financial capacity which would come on top of the EU budget, but he has not given any details on its function. Should it support long-term convergence in the euro area, or should it work as an automatic stabilisation mechanism? Should it be managed by member states jointly or by the Commission? Which conditionality strings should be attached to its use in order to avoid moral hazard?


The French tend to overlook difficult questions of subsidiarity and the necessary division of labour between the EU and member states. That ‘pay’ is excluded from areas of legislation in EU treaties – something potentially ruining any attempt to harmonise minimum wage approaches or coordinating wage developments – tends to be ignored. Moreover, are French people ready to pay into a new common pot knowing that the beneficiaries are likely to be other countries?

Arguably, this high degree of imprecision affects the credibility of French positions. Blaming the EU for many domestic woes and expecting too much from it might not be the best way to lead on the Social Europe debate.

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