For France, being normal is not an option
1. In the world, there are nations which are far more ancient than France, yet the French sentimentality towards her history as a universal history is rather unique. There is only one other nation in the world that rivals France in its perception of its history, evincing a belief in a permanent mission on behalf of humanity: the United States of America. Hence, the asymmetric rivalry between Paris and Washington.
Over the last seventy years, the gap between French power and French self-consciousness has been growing wider and wider, aided by the contrast between absolute power ambitions and the relativizing effect of the reality of world politics. Despite this, the French national elite still keeps fostering that “certain attitude”.
France needs to think of herself as being more than what she really is in order to remain herself. And if, all things considered, the result is unconvincing, it becomes necessary to consider things in different terms. Terms that will confirm the French grandeur.
Remember what Nicolas Sarkozy did in 2008? He was so irritated by the very modest size of the tricolour GDP that he charged a dream team of economists - led by Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz - with the task of setting a new standard by which to measure economic performance. The new standard would have employed less vulgarly materialistic terms than the usual one, conventionally based on the measurement of various national GDPs.
Mixing the brute productivity-related data with others such as well-being and spare time, the skilful team produced a brand new place list of the world’s spiritual-economic powers. This time around, France was to be seen as being really close to the US – fostering an Anglo-Saxon wave of ironies on the so-called “joie de vivre index”.
“Arrogance usually hides a very low amount of self-esteem,” said Oliver Kempf in explaining the French rhetoric of greatness. In fact, the magniloquent national discourse ends up nurturing the decadence ideology within the public. Setting unattainable goals is having a rather irritating – rather than reassuring – effect on the French population, which in turn often ends up forgetting that they live in what remains one of the richest and most attractive countries in the world.
Within the French elite, voices are calling for a more sober approach, extended over all the major institutions. How unlikely is that? François Hollande might very well be Monsieur Normal, but can such a humble president succeed in jettisoning centuries-old transalpine exceptionalism in just one mandate? A task made more difficult still by the fact that the French people elected him with the exact hope that he would restore the Republic’s dignity following the exhibitionist, nepotistic behavior of Sarko l'Américain?
Interpreting French geopolitics while neglecting its rhetoric and omitting its missionary root translates into giving up the possibility of understanding it, either by drawing an all-too-easy caricature, or by descending into the purest polemic custom.
What is set in stone in the Hexagon is not an ordinary nation state among others, but a worldly nation. Had she not included the Third republic’s secularism within her identity code, it would be tempting to assimilate France to a Church – an evolution from her original statute as the Roman Catholicism’s “first born”, with all the universality that follows.
2. From the Schumann plan (1950) to the German reunification (1990), France conceived Europe in her own image and likeness. As General de Gaulle privately put it (1962):
“What is the point of Europe? It should serve to prevent us from being dominated by America or Russia. France could be the strongest of the six members. We could control this lever of Archimedes. We could carry away the others. Europe is the means for France to recover what it ceased to be after Waterloo: first in the world”. Maybe somewhat ambitious as a plan - but a plan nonetheless.
From the very fall of the Berlin Wall – something which did upset her Archimedean designs and evoke her 1870 and 1940 spectres – Paris’ geopolitics has been framed within the logic of containing eventual damage(s). Europe is simply not thinkable in terms of a Great France; let us make sure it does not turn into a Great Germany either.
If the German economic power and fiscal culture will keep dictating the assignments for the rest of the European Union – or at least what is left of it – sooner or later the geo-economic alchemy will translate into a geopolitical disaster, i.e. the collapse of the architecture designed by Monnet and Schumann, or the German domination over the continent.
Some of the shrillest tones within the French presidential campaign were those used in order to evoke the fear of the “boches”, or the shame of the “collabos” (those French people who actually collaborated with the Hitlerian occupiers) almost as if the fiscal compact was the Fourth Reich’s Charta. The Germanophobia nerve is confirmed as still being quite irritable, just as the panic with which Mitterrand reacted to the prospects of a German reunification had anticipated.
From the Maastricht Treaty up to the restrictive reinterpretations of it put forward by Merkel and certified by Sarkozy, all of the last twenty years Community issues somehow revolve around the French-German relationship.
A stressed couple, which however cannot seek divorce, not on the basis of the love for the children (the other European countries), but because neither of the two can tolerate being on its own. Germany, with her increasingly autistic, assertive, and intolerant attitudes towards the Southern European partners and yet unable to show any sign of a real hegemony. France, tormented by her decline-ism, and yet too proud to allow for a role swap – as she must remain the charioteer, and Germany the horse drawing the chariot, within de Gaulle’s axiom.
Hence, while Mitterrand’s aim in Maastricht was to take away from the Germans both their currency (DM) and the actual European Central Bank (the Bundesbank), the German countermoves, from Kohl to Merkel, have aimed at conforming the Eurozone to their geo-economic and monetary culture, according to which austerity and virtually no inflation are the basis for economic growth – German growth, at least.
The outcome: the Eurozone countries which have been most affected by the crisis are pushed towards the deflation abyss, so that Germany and her satellites can contain their inflation rate at around 2%. “This is not a monetary union. It is far more like an empire”, wrote Martin Wolf on the Financial Times. His view channels the feelings of the rest of the European countries, France in particular.
Still, Paris has no intentions to break up with Berlin, for matters of both principle and urgency. The principle: France cannot tolerate the idea that a Germany emancipated from any supervision might end up spreading far and wide in Europe and the world. The urgency: to avoid the markets’ mental association of the Hexagon to the Club Med – that circle of Hell where the gone astray Greeks, and the precarious Portuguese, Spanish, and Italians come together. For such an association would end up downgrading France, pushing the spread, with the consequent peak in the interest rates of the government securities.
The price of a divorce with Germany would be the self-reclusion to the continental periphery. Utterly inconceivable. Almost as inconceivable as a reforms menu imbued with Germanic sauces.
Hence Hollande is trying to make a breach into the Eurozone crisis, looking for those resources (read: taxes) that will prove necessary to finance the debit, and to try and sketch an industrial policy aimed promoting growth (however minimal). This involves challenging the Germanic orthodoxy, pointing towards the Eurobonds, i.e. the Europeanization of the national debts, which is anathema for Berlin.
Greece now is in the abyss not only because of her own faults, but mainly due to the suicidal remedies that Berlin imposed her via Brussels/Frankfurt - the hundredth low-profile French-German compromise, some transalpine water with which to dilute the Germanic wine. All of this with the special participation of the Italians, the Spanish and the other Europartners, terrified by Merkel’s rigour and yet unable to formulate a coherent alternative. Needless to say, this won’t remove the crisis’ structural causes.
One of which is certainly the lack of a political sovereign entity willing to look after the Euro - a reflection of the impossibility to reduce the German and French ideas (or non-ideas) of Europe to a coherent one, let alone the other twenty-five variations on the theme.
It is in her relationship with Germany that France shows herself at her worse. The rhetoric and praxis of the trans-Renan relations are two very different things, as the friendship between the Germans and French is in fact rather superficial.
While the generation of fathers and grandfathers is still affected both by the war memories and the reciprocal phobias, globalization-driven indifference affects sons and grandsons.
The united Germany’s youth looks far more towards China or America rather than France, in which they show hardly any sign of interest. Only a few embark upon learning the language of the civilisation. Between the two peoples there is no real connection.
To try and trace the cartography of the inferiority complex of the ones or that of superiority of the others would be a complete waste of time. What really matters is that the two poles repulse one another. It will be very interesting to witness next year’s ceremonies for the 50th anniversary of the Élisée Treaty, with which de Gaulle and Adenauer sealed a rather superficial reconciliation.
The French decision-makers’ approach towards united Germany is best described as divided between public Germanophilia and private Germanophobia. An authoritative French diplomat explains the issue in the following terms:
- The German-speaking populations living beyond the Rhine – notwithstanding their various transformations over the course of the last three centuries – remain our real hereditary enemies, and the same is true for the Anglo-Saxons, who are largely Germanic themselves.
- This element is deeply rooted in both the conscience and sub-conscious of the vast majority of our population, even though its Germanic component has sensibly increased over the last two thousand years.
- The May/June 1940, the Occupation, and the Collaboration have been highly traumatic events from which we have not fully recovered yet.
- Our own elites, as much as they are emancipated and internationalised, in private cannot escape this vivid sensation.
- However, one should also keep in mind the reasons that shape the French peaceful attitude towards Germany, i.e. our strong (and happy!) humanist tradition, the political trend underwent after 1950, the US interest, our almost uninterrupted media concert on a necessary “reconciliation” between France and Germany, and on the need to construct a (vague…) Europe. All this – in public – gives the impression of a stable French-German couple which, however, has never existed.
If this is the case, what does Europe mean at all? And what does it mean for France to side with Germany? At the very best, we are in front of the preservation of a sterile couple. If Hollande is to give a twist to this secular French-German religion, he better normalizes this all-too-special link, by reshaping the basic political grammar into the give-and-take of pragmatism.
Most importantly, he will have to take a breath of fresh air. There is no Europe without France and Germany, and yet France plus Germany does not equal Europe. Italy, Spain, Poland and other countries, too small in the opinion of the grandeur entomologists, could contribute to quieten the French obsession to keep the “historical German enemy” under control.
They may even help Berlin to move beyond the impasse in which she finds herself now, as a consequence of her strict observation of the rigorous ideology, between the Scylla of destabilizing Europe once more in history, and the Charybdis of repudiating her sacred principles in order to save an all too Mediterranean currency, which she never really wanted.
Several causes account for the recent Eurochaos; but the main one is the tension surrounding the Paris-Berlin axis, worsened by the French obsession for Germany.