To all the variations on the "Keep Calm" theme that have been offered since the British voted to leave the European Union, add this one: Keep Calm and thank God we're not France.
Britain's entire political class may be in disarray and divided about how, when or even if to trigger the country's withdrawal from the European Union. But whatever transpires in Little England in the months ahead may be a lot less ugly and dangerous than developments across the Channel in France.
Hostility toward continental integration had been snowballing among the French – who, after the Greeks, are the Europeans most likely to hold an unfavourable opinion of the EU – well before Britain's June 23 referendum. Ever since French voters rejected the idea of a European Constitution in a 2005 referendum – a constitution whose main tenets ended up being adopted by the French parliament anyway a few years later in the Treaty of Lisbon – the sense that the country has been slowly losing its sovereignty to Brussels has stuck in the national craw.
The hit to the collective amour de soi has been palpable. Tack on a frighteningly real terrorist threat – seen to have been exacerbated by open borders, immigration and a migrant crisis – and you have an inkling of the popular anxiety that the far-right National Front has gleefully stoked. And make no mistake, the nativists in the National Front make Britain's UKIP xenophobes look like pussycats.
The French far left, meanwhile, has been equally hostile toward the EU for imposing fiscal austerity on countries within the euro zone, such as France, that can no longer resort to the shock absorber of devaluation to stimulate their economies. The flight of voters from the centre-left Socialists to more extreme left-wing formations has further fed the anti-EU mood.
"In France, if you add up the extremes, we could have an anti-European majority," former prime minister Alain Juppé this week told Le Monde. "The gap between pro- and anti-Europeans is in the process of replacing the right-left cleavage. This situation obligates us to reinvent Europe."
Between National Front Leader Marine Le Pen and Leftist Front chief Jean-Luc Mélenchon – both of whom are calling for a Frexit referendum – the main contenders for the centre-right Republican party nomination want to renegotiate France's membership in the EU and submit any new deal to voters in a referendum. But as British Prime Minister David Cameron fatefully discovered, renegotiation proposals have a way of coalescing anti-Europe forces rather than placating them.
Socialist President François Hollande opposes any referendum, but, with a record disapproval rating, he is unlikely to be on the ballot in 2017. A runoff election for the presidency between Ms. Le Pen and the Republican candidate – with either Mr. Juppé or former president Nicolas Sarkozy as the nominee – remains the most likely scenario in 2017.
"If the European idea cannot pass the test of a referendum, it's because we're on the wrong track," Mr. Sarkozy said this week after a post-Brexit vote emergency meeting of Republican party officials set out the conditions for France's renegotiation of its EU membership, including the re-establishment of national border controls "everywhere and as long as necessary."
The French, however, seem to be in no mood for tinkering. Momentum for an in-or-out referendum on a Frexit is building fast and may become irresistible. While a snap opinion poll this week found that a plurality of French voters would vote to remain within the EU – just as precampaign polls showed the Remain side ahead in Britain – there is majority support for a referendum among decided voters. Judging from the French reaction to the Brexit vote, don't expect any market upheaval (whose direct consequences are borne primarily by pro-European elites) to cool anti-European ardour in France. The National Front's favoured themes of security, identity and sovereignty would define any Frexit campaign.
"We French know poorly the England of Brexit. But we know quite well its equivalent in France," journalist Benoît Hopquin wrote this week in Le Monde. "We know these cities without prestige. … There's the factory, abandoned or running below capacity, rebought, resold, dismantled bit by bit, soon to be an empty carcass, its machines moved on while the workers remain [since] they're worth less."
This France, the one to which the tourists never flock, has had enough. "It figures it has nothing left to lose that it hasn't already lost," Mr. Hopquin added. "It's this desperado aspect that is the most worrying. We see how this France would vote if, tomorrow, a Frexit referendum was held."