BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Nearly two-thirds of French people think the European Union is headed in the wrong direction and more than half disapprove of President Francois Hollande’s leadership, according to a widely-watched survey released on Wednesday.
The poll, conducted in six EU countries by Gallup, also found most Britons want to leave the European Union, a higher figure than in other recent surveys. That is likely to fuel demands for an early British referendum on EU membership.
But perhaps the most striking findings were those related to France, a founding EU member state that is experiencing increasing disillusionment over Europe amid slumping growth and rising unemployment since Hollande took office a year ago.
The survey showed opinions in France and Germany, the traditional twin motors of Europe, are diverging, undermining unity over where the continent is headed following three years of economic upheaval and social tension.
“The French-German axis that provided the largest basis for common European policy in the past is now weakening, reflecting the diverging mood in the two countries,” Gallup’s Anna Manchin wrote in an accompanying analysis.
“The French are losing confidence in globalization and growing insecure in their position within Europe. Our findings reflect this turn in France away from the EU toward more pressing national problems.”
The survey showed that the French are the least likely to say things are moving in the right direction in the EU (17 percent), while 62 percent say they are moving in the wrong direction, a figure that rises to 86 percent among those who say they disapprove of Hollande’s leadership.
By comparison, in Britain, which is generally more euro-skeptical than France, 56 percent think the EU is moving in the wrong direction, a figure that rises to 82 percent among those who disapprove of Prime Minister David Cameron’s policies.
Across all six countries surveyed - the Netherlands, Denmark, Poland, Germany, Britain and France, representing around half of the EU’s 500 million population - most people felt things were going in the wrong direction.
In a question about Hollande’s leadership on Europe, 51 percent of French said they disapproved, more even than those surveyed in Britain (45 percent) or in Germany (37 percent), where views were more positive on the Socialist president.
Asked about Germany’s leadership in Europe, 54 percent of Germans approved as did 45 percent of French and 36 percent of Britons. Across all six countries, Chancellor Angela Merkel met with substantially more approval than disapproval.
For European leaders, perhaps the most worrying findings are the views on quitting the EU, a club that has grown from 6 members at its founding in the early 1950s to 27 now, and soon to be 28 once Croatia joins in July.
While surveys - including a poll by the Pew Research Center released last month [ID:nL6N0DU3PY] - often show Britain is largely negative about Europe, Gallup’s findings revealed an even deeper strain of antipathy towards the EU.
Asked how they would vote if a referendum were held next week on whether they should leave, 55 percent of Britons said they would vote “out” and only a quarter to stay in.
While that will be a concern for Cameron, who is worried by the steady climb of the anti-EU UKIP party in opinion polls, the findings in France and Germany will be even more disconcerting for advocates of deeper EU integration.
More than a third of French (34 percent) would vote to leave if asked, and nearly a third of Germans (31 percent) too.
With elections to the European Parliament taking place in May next year, concerns are growing that popular discontent with the EU after years of crisis will fuel anti-EU votes.
The survey did not collect opinion on voting intentions, but it did show an apparent increase in voter engagement. In the past, turnout has fallen at every European election since 1979, dropping to 43 percent at the last ballot in 2009.
But that could change: 73 percent of French said that if the elections were held next week, they would vote, a figure that falls to 69 percent among Germans and 68 percent in Britain - still far above usual voter turnout.