A European Union flag flies in Guyancourt, France, near Paris on July 2. (Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images)

When British voters shocked the world by choosing to leave the European Union, they presented the French political establishment with an unexpected prospect: making Europe French again.

While Marine Le Pen and other members of the French far-right have wasted no time in heralding the Brexit vote as a harbinger of more “leave” campaigns to come, the political mainstream has begun to spin the pending British departure as a chance to recast Europe to France’s advantage.

With Britain out, Germany, the economic powerhouse of the continent, could theoretically lose its partner in pushing for more ­austerity across the continent. France will now also be the only E.U. member state with a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, amplifying its regional and global influence.

Many here now see a chance to tip the historically weighted scales of the Franco-German alliance and to reclaim a lost vision for Europe with France at the center.

At the moment, the E.U. is a somewhat pejorative term in France: More people here dislike the institution than even in the U.K. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, only 38 percent of French citizens polled expressed favorable views of the Brussels-based bloc, compared with 44 percent of U.K. citizens.

Marine Le Pen, France's far-right National Front political party leader, speaks at the FN party headquarters in Nanterre near Paris after Britain's referendum vote to leave the European Union in June. (Jacky Naegelen/Reuters) (Jacky Naegelen/Reuters)

To capitalize on that sentiment, some on the right — Le Pen most of all, but others as well — have increased their push for a “Frexit” vote on France’s membership in the E.U.

But virtually every major contender for president in next year’s election has acknowledged the necessity of a “new Europe,” an amorphous idea with few specifics that nevertheless spans the political spectrum.

“Now is the time to invent another Europe,” Manuel Valls, France’s Socialist prime minister, said immediately after the Brexit results.

His political rivals, including former president Nicolas Sarkozy and former prime minister Alain Juppé, both conservative contenders in next year’s presidential election, all seem to agree.

Largely to appease French Euroskeptics, the politicians have all promised voters some combination of increasing the E.U.’s external security, rethinking travel within the visa-free Schengen zone and halting the talks on Turkey’s accession to the bloc.

But French Euroskepticism is fueled by more than contemporary politics. It is also a function of history, and what many perceive to be France’s diminished place in the world order — especially in Europe.

Bertrand, 46, who would not give his last name, is a lawyer in Paris, where he has lived and worked for his entire career.

France’s position in Europe, he said, “is a position that is honorable, discreet — but perhaps too discreet.”

“It’s essential that Europe change and evolve, especially to become less bureaucratic and more respective of national identities.”

Maria Cristina, 56, who moved to France six years ago from her native Italy and has since applied for French citizenship, agreed.

“We’re not going toward a common goal,” she said of France in Europe. “Our values are not the same, our languages are not the same, our cultures are not the same.”

Neither supports a referendum that would jeopardize France’s place in the E.U., but both believe that a “new Europe” could better reflect French interests, although its specific details remain unclear.

There is a considerable argument that the institution that ultimately became the E.U. in the decades after World War II was originally a French vision, a confederation in which German economic might would be managed by French political leadership.

French Prime Minister Robert Schuman first proposed the integration of Western European heavy industry, and the French economist Jean Monnet enacted that integration as the first president of the European Coal and Steel Community in the 1950s.

That decidedly French influence continued well into the 1980s, when Jacques Delors ran the European Commission that created the single market and the euro.

“The French view of the E.U. was always that it was fine, as long as it resembles France and serves France’s interest,” said Marc Pierini, a former E.U. diplomat who is also a French citizen. “Which of course is not the meaning of a political union at all.”

According to Vivien Schmidt, the Jean Monnet professor of European integration at Boston University, the major shift away from a French-led Europe came in the 1990s, when the European single market embraced a host of neoliberal economic policies, including the deregulation of telecommunications and, later, of electricity, both opposed by France.

“Basically, it’s no longer the French leading,” she said. “It’s a set of policies that don’t sit well with the idea of the French state being in control.”

Others blame the final size of the E.U. as undermining its initial French political orientation.

“From the French point of view, we were comfortable with 12 or 15 members,” said Pascal Boniface, director of the Paris-based Institute for International and Strategic Relations.

“But with 28, we’re a little uncomfortable. Most feel that we have lost our capacity to lead in Europe. We are a little bit lost.”

In the immediate aftermath of Brexit, French leaders such as Emmanuel Macron, the economy and finance minister, already have begun trying to incentivize uneasy banks in the city of London to relocate to Paris, where, in theory, they could transform the city into Europe’s new financial capital.

“Germany has set the rules and set the narrative,” Schmidt said. “For the French, the question is, how do you set a new narrative that sets a different vision for Europe?”

Read more