By Mark John
PARIS (Reuters) - A feeling in France that the European Union no longer works in its interest is fueling tensions between Paris and Brussels and adding pressure on President Francois Hollande to be more assertive in Europe.
Successive Europe-wide polls show that disenchantment with the EU is rising fastest in France, a founder member whose battle to reform its ailing economy has now become the top preoccupation of the 27-nation bloc.
Sources of the malaise are many: from the rise of post-unification Germany as a political force in Europe, to the feeling that EU institutions have mishandled the economic crisis and neglected core concerns such as unemployment.
Anti-EU groups such as the National Front have latched onto the public mood of frustration to secure opinion poll gains. The mainstream French left and right are struggling to define their stances on Europe before early 2014 European Parliament elections where both fear heavy losses to populist parties.
The instinctively pro-European Hollande is not about to tilt French policy in a Euroskeptic direction. But such anxieties set the stage for France's lone stance last week to ringfence cinema and other cultural goods from talks on an EU-US free trade pact, to the dismay of Brussels and some European capitals.
"There is a sense in France of losing grip of its own destiny," said Aurelien Renard of pollster Gallup Europe, whose June survey shows two-thirds of French believe the EU is heading in the wrong direction.
"The EU-US trade question, and particularly over culture, was an opportunity to show it still had a grip."
French officials believe that maintaining the "cultural exception" - a 20-year-old truce in trade talks preserving state subsidies to cinema and other sectors - is a national interest just as vital to it as the City of London is to Britain.
Thus Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso's attack on the stance as showing a "reactionary" anti-globalization agenda unleashed a volley of Gallic ire, from the Socialist Hollande saying he was shocked to French social media users clicking the ironic #jesuisreactionnaire ("I am a reactionary") hashtag.
The episode showed once again how few French politicians of any hue subscribe wholeheartedly to the free-market agenda of the European Commission. Economic liberals in the U.S. or British sense are a tiny, largely silent minority of France.
But the spat is the just latest example of Paris being too quick to clearly mark out its territory in Europe.
When the Commission last month issued a detailed list of reforms it wants from Paris in return for a two-year reprieve to narrow its budget deficit, a peeved Hollande fired back that it was not for Brussels to "dictate" to France.
While his response irked allies of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, it reflects a domestic French reality of which Hollande is only too aware: if he is to reform sensitive areas such as pensions, it must not be seen to be at Brussels' bidding.
An EU plan to cut air travel times and costs across Europe fell foul of French air traffic controllers last week who walked off the job to protest at moves they say threaten security and their working conditions. France, this time joined by Germany, told EU authorities to freeze the project.
PUNITIVE AND ALIENATING
The elephant in the room is the election next May to a European Parliament with a growing say in EU policy matters, and for which the French left and right are nervously bracing.
Explaining the French disenchantment with Europe revealed by Gallup and a widely-watched Pew Research Center poll last month, former Commission President Jacques Delors regaled a Socialist gathering this weekend with a withering attack on what he called a "punitive and alienating" Europe.
The meeting agreed a text urging a revision of EU rules on national budget deficits and for a devaluation of the euro - policies that have little chance of coming to fruition but which will keep up pressure on Hollande to avoid excess fiscal rigor.
France's right remains in disarray on Europe, with a wide cleavage between pro-sovereignty and pro-integration wings potentially meaning the centre-right UMP struggles to go into the elections on a united platform.
That would delight Marine Le Pen, whose poll ratings outdo Hollande's in some surveys and whose anti-EU, anti-immigration National Front this weekend ousted his Socialists out of the run-off for a vacant French parliament seat in a by-election.
While the Socialist Party's case was not helped by the fact that the rural Villeneuve-sur-Lot seat came up when one of its grandees fell to a tax fraud scandal, the other big grievance was against a Europe which many French do not trust.
"It's not that I am anti-EU," Nicole Ausou, a 61-year-old retired social worker said at a union-organized march against welfare spending cuts in Paris this weekend.
"But I want another Europe, a Europe of French policies."
(Additional reporting by Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels and Sophie Louet in Paris; editing by Anna Willard)