Editor's Note: This is the 14th in a series of Stratfor monographs on the geopolitics of countries influential in world affairs.
Geographically, the continent of Europe is a busy place. It is riddled with features that impede the formation of any large political entity. Mountain ranges inhibit trade and armies alike while peninsulas and islands limit the ability of larger powers to intimidate or conquer smaller ones. Because of such features, it isn't as much of a surprise that Europe has never united under a single government as it is that anyone has ever tried.
That is because there are two other geographic features that push Europe together rather than pull it apart. The first is the North European Plain, an expansive stretch of lowland extending from the Russian steppe in the east to the Pyrenees in the west. This region is blessed with the densest concentration of navigable waterways in the world. The combination of a fertile, easily traversable coastal plain with seven major rivers guarantees both agricultural surpluses and the ability to move them easily and cheaply. The plain is perfect for trade, communication and technology transfer — and from those activities the accumulation of massive amounts of capital. Consequently, Northern Europe is home to the densest concentration of wealth in the world.
The second feature — the Mediterranean Sea — plays a similar role to the continent's south. Maritime transport on the Mediterranean is far simpler than oceanic transport in Northern Europe; the North Sea is one of the world's stormiest bodies of water. But mitigating that advantage is the simple fact that much of the southern side of the continent lacks a robust coastal plain. So while Southern Europe is still rich by global standards, it is a distant second by the high standards of Northern Europe. The two regions have very little to do with each other geographically, and their relative isolation has spawned a raft of differing political, social and economic cultures.
Mix the geographic features that inhibit unification with the features that facilitate trade and communication and Europe becomes a very rich, very violent place. None of Europe's rivers naturally interconnect, giving most European nations their own independent capital base. But these rivers are all close to each other, and most flow across the North European Plain to empty into the Atlantic, ensuring constant interaction. It is a recipe for wars of domination, a simple fact born out in centuries of European history.
The second and third places where the fragmentation pattern does not hold are the Garonne and Rhone river valleys. The Garonne's head of navigation is at Toulouse, only 150 kilometers from the Mediterranean, but the river flows west across the North European Plain to the Atlantic rather than east to the much-closer Mediterranean. The Rhone is one of the relatively few European rivers that both empty into the Mediterranean and serve as a trade corridor to Northern Europe (the Danube empties into the geographically constricted Black Sea). As such, the Garonne and Rhone serve as the sole natural connections between the plain and the Mediterranean.
The one thing these three geographic exceptions have in common is that they all have long resided in the political entity known as France. Only France is both a Northern and Southern European power. It is the only European power — despite its seeming isolation near the Continent's western end — that can attempt to project power in any portion of the European theater. But the key word here is "attempt." While France stands out in its unique access, it lacks — especially today — the size to dominate. Consequently, France is nearly always engaged but is only rarely ascendant.
The Geography of France
France is bound by the Alps in the southeast and the Pyrenees in the southwest, the Mediterranean Sea in the south and the Atlantic in both the west and north. In the east, France is bound by the river Rhine and the low mountains of the Ardennes, Vosges and Jura.
Mountain chains, rivers and seas therefore enclose France at all points save for one: the North European Plain. Access to the plain gives France its most important geographical feature. Because it is at the terminus of the plain — or its beginning, depending on one's perspective — France has the advantage of having to defend itself only on one lowland front and from the sea. However, it is at the same time subjected to the same threats, opportunities and temptations that the North European Plain offers: It can be drawn into thinking that the road of conquest is clear ahead or to ignore the threats coming down it at its great cost.
The lowlands of the plain enter France at Flanders in the extreme northeast, where the Belgium-France border abuts the Atlantic. The plain then continues west past the Ardennes — the heavily forested hills at the southern border of France and Belgium — before curving southwestward via the Beauce gap, the aforementioned flat lands between the upper reaches of the Seine and Loire. Finally, the plain flows into the Aquitaine region in extreme southwestern France where it meets the Pyrenees Mountains, ending at the natural boundary of the Iberian Peninsula.
Internally, aside from the Massif Central in the southeast, France is a country of relatively low-lying terrain with occasional hills. It is interspersed by a number of slow-flowing rivers, most of which are open to transportation with little or no modification and which historically have been connected by canals to facilitate commerce.
The territory with the greatest of France's advantages — navigable rivers, warm climate, sufficient rainfall, good drainage and fertile soils — is the Beauce region. The area's limestone soil, rich in nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium and thus providing natural fertilizer, and warm climate made possible by the North Atlantic Drift make it the most fertile land in Western Europe. It has been the basis of French agricultural power for centuries and holds nearly all of the country's agricultural land. Today it is also the most integrated — via a robust transportation infrastructure — with the rest of Europe.
The Beauce region is therefore the French core. At its extreme northern border, where the rivers Marne and Seine meet, lies Paris. Paris itself was founded on an island in the Seine, Ile de la Cite (the current location of the Notre Dame Cathedral), an easily defensible location that commands control over the land route between the last major curve of the Seine to the north and the river Marne to the south. Whoever controls Paris therefore controls transportation from the Beauce region to the rest of Europe via the North European Plain.
Paris is also close enough to the Atlantic — connected by the Seine — to benefit from oceanic trade routes but far enough away to be insulated somewhat from a direct naval invasion. In fact, Paris is as far north as it is (the French at times flirted with moving the capital to southern Orleans, which is almost dead-center in the Beauce) in order to keep a close eye on both Viking raids from the Atlantic and the once independence-minded Normandy and to complicate any English attempts to establish a permanent base of operations on the south side of the English Channel.
The History of France
Phase I: Centralization (843-1453)
The Beauce region of France has always been the core of the French state because of its fertile land and strategic location on the North European Plain. Political power in the region only temporarily migrated southward during the time of Roman rule, but it quickly returned to the north when Franks invaded from the northeast. However, extending political power from Beauce to the rest of territory that is today France was a serious challenge, particularly for the fledgling Frankish kingdom that emerged following the Roman withdrawal.
Early France faced two problems, both rooted in geography. The first dealt with the plains. The Umayyad Caliphate's invasion of Europe in the 8th century had introduced heavy cavalry as the preeminent military technology of the time, particularly fitting in France because the lowlands of the North European Plain were quite conducive to charges of heavy horse. Ranks of Beauce infantry were easy to suppress, although Charles Martel managed to hold the Muslim advance at the 732 Battle of Tours — only 200 kilometers from Paris — largely with highly trained heavy infantry. The solution to this military reality was feudalism. To spread the costs of training and maintaining cavalry, the king ceded land to his vassals, enabling them to maintain mounted knights.
This ultimately held the Muslim forces at bay, but this "solution" nearly killed early France through decentralization. By granting feudal lords lands and rights, the crown further entrenched a nobility that could also maintain military forces independent of the crown. Unsurprisingly, the region devolved into a political free-for-all following the dissolution of the empire of Charlemagne — Charles Martel's grandson — in 843.
And while the lowlands fractured into dozens of competing feudal realms with the crown looking on helplessly, central power weakened sufficiently so that the hills and mountains of the rest of the country could entrench and maintain their own distinctive identities. Modern French is based on the northern Langue d'oil of the Ile de France dialect dominant in the Beauce region. But southern regions used various Langue d'oc dialects, which had more in common with Catalan, Spanish and Italian. Meanwhile, the Rhone and Saone valleys retained a separate but related linguistic identity through the Franco-Provencal dialect. The residents of these regions considered themselves ethnically French for the most part.
The Bretagne population was of Celtic origin (Celtic refugees who fled Saxon invasions of Britain) while in Aquitaine the population was a mix of ethnic Basque and Galo-Roman. It took millennia of consolidation before all of these ethnic/linguistic differences were assimilated into what is now France. French, one of the Langue d'oil, did not become the official tongue until the 1500s, and linguistic unification was not completed until the 1800s.
This political (feudal) and ethnic (linguistic) disunity combined with France's position as a north-south continental crossroads encouraged the intervention of outside powers. The most pertinent examples are the wars with England from the 11th until the 15th centuries. England considered continental France their playpen for much of the Middle Ages. In fact, the Norman leaders of England did not distinguish much between their French and English possessions; both were considered integral parts of their ancestral lands. The narrowness of the English Channel allowed England continually to threaten the French core in the Beauce, especially as long as it had continental footholds in Aquitaine, Burgundy and Normandy. The threat was so great that France was nearly destroyed during the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453), which almost resulted in the uniting of England and France under London's control.
But ironically this conflict — the one that nearly destroyed France — ultimately saved it. During the Hundred Years' War, heavy cavalry proved to be vulnerable to fortifications, advanced archery and (eventually) gunpowder — all technologies that required a much greater centralization and coordination of resources than feudalism could provide. Only a strong monarchy could furnish the capital needed for the construction of massive castles and the production of guns and gunpowder on a proto-industrial scale while freeing up sufficient numbers of peasants to form units of archers. As in the conflict with the Muslims, it was a technological innovation that forced France's political system to evolve, and this time the shift was toward centralization rather than decentralization. The result was the initial consolidation of what we now know as France and a steady increase in the coherence of the French state.
The combination of the political disasters of the feudal period and the success of consolidation in the battles with the English served as the formative period of the French psyche. The English taught the French — the hard way — the value of unity. Ever since, France has had the most centralized state in the Western world. Unlike Germany, the United Kingdom or the United States, France does not have a large and robust federal structure. There are no substantive regional governments. Instead, almost all power is vested in Paris and Paris alone. Having a foot in both Northern and Southern Europe and needing to maintain a navy to keep the English at bay as well as a large army to compete in Europe requires a wealth of resources and a high degree of central planning. Whether the leader is Louis XIV, Napoleon or Charles de Gaulle, a centralized government is in — and born of — French blood.
Phase II: The Hapsburg Challenge and Balance of Power (1506-1700)
Europe's Hapsburg era was a dangerous time for the French. In addition to controlling Spain (and briefly Portugal) and the rising wealth of the New World, the Hapsburgs also commanded most of Italy and the trade center that was the Netherlands, threatening France in both European spheres. Paris in particular was endangered by the Hapsburg-Dutch connection, with little standing between the two powers on the North European Plain. With the English still in control of the English Channel, Paris understandably felt constrained from all sides.
Facing so many threats forced France to be flexible in its alliances. Scottish separatists were a favorite means of unbalancing the English. France allied with the Muslim Ottoman Empire against the fellow Catholic Hapsburg Empire during many of the engagements in Italy in the mid-16th century and with numerous Protestant German political entities during the Thirty Year War (1618-1648) — the latter when foreign policy was conducted by Armand Jean du Plessis de Richelieu, a Catholic cardinal. France would do anything to prevent its enemies from massing forces in the Netherlands and Belgium and anything to avoid having to fight a land war on the North European Plain.
But it was one thing to play the spoiler and quite another to rule. Well-crafted policy in Paris could prevent the Hapsburgs' geographically far-flung possessions and overextended military from coalescing into a single dominating force that could uproot France, but as the Hapsburgs weakened, France found itself similarly unable to remake Europe in its own image. In three major wars — the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714), the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748) and the Seven Years' War (1754-1763, against Britain in North America) — France expended great financial resources in efforts to dominate one region or another, only to emerge at each war's end with little to show for its efforts. Paris kept coming up against coalitions expressly designed to balance its power and prevent it from dominating. With the Hapsburg Empire waning in power, the rest of the European states well understood that France — and only France — could be the next to rule Europe.
But French efforts were exhausting. The various global military entanglements of the 18th century bankrupted the state, severely infringing on Paris' ability to maintain internal coherence and defend the North European Plain. There were two equally damning results. First, the depleted treasury led to a general breakdown in internal order, contributing to the French Revolution of 1789. Second, Paris' distraction with England and Spain led it to miss the emergence of Prussia as a serious European power that began to first rival and ultimately superseded Hapsburg Austria for leadership among the cacophony of German kingdoms.
Phase III: Nationalism and the Rise of Germany (1789-1945)
One of the many unintended side effects of the French Revolution was the concept of nationalism, the idea that people of a relatively common origin and ancestry and speaking a common tongue shared a common destiny.
From nationalism grew the nation-state, a political entity that harnesses all people sharing a similar ethnicity into a single governing unit. Combining nationalism, the nation-state and France's already deep penchant for centralization begot a juggernaut that was republican France. Rather than having its energies split internally on various regional and class-based feuds, all of French power was pooled into a single government, completing the process that had begun at the end of the Hundred Years' War against England. This unprecedented capture of a nation's strengths was going to make France a powerhouse beyond imagining no matter who happened to rule the country, and it turned out it was Napoleon who would hold the reins.
The result was the one near-unipolar moment in European history. Not only was France the only state to have embraced the concept of nationalism, but it also grafted the concept onto an already centralized system, allowing French power to pour forth across Europe and North Africa. France suddenly reversed its role on the North European Plain — that of a cautious power protecting its borders with fortifications and distraction — and used the plain to its own advantage, launching an all-out invasion of what was then, essentially, the entire Western world. The rest of Europe — fragmented among various royal families interconnected through marriage and inheritance and dependent on pseudo-feudal forms of allegiance — was simply unprepared for the onslaught launched upon them by a modern nation-state led by the brilliant military strategy of Napoleon Bonaparte. From 1803 to 1815, France nearly overwhelmed the rest of Europe before a coalition of nearly every major and minor power on the Continent combined forces to defeat it.
The lesson was a simple one, again rooted in geography. Even when France is united and whole, even when it is not under siege, even when its foes are internally distracted and off balance, even when it is led by one of the greatest organizational and military minds in human history, even when it holds the advantage of nationalism — it still lacks the resources and manpower to rule Europe.
The Napoleonic Wars were the highpoint of French power, made possible by a constellation of factors that are unlikely to be repeated. The English, Spanish, Dutch, Russians and Italians all recovered. Napoleon was exiled. But most of all the advantage of nationalism spread. Over the next few decades the political innovation of the nation-state spread throughout Europe and in time became a global phenomenon. The result was stronger governments, better able to marshal resources for everything from commerce to war. And no people benefited more — much to France's chagrin — than the Germans.
The shock to France of a unified Germany was palpable. Not only was the German empire directly unified through war against France, Germany also made sure to conduct the 1871 unification ceremony and coronation of the German emperor at Versailles Palace during its brief occupation of France.
While the 100 miles of border between France and Belgium always represented the main threat to the French core, prior to Germany's consolidation that threat was somewhat manageable. But the unification of Germany created a just as populous and more industrialized state hard by France's most vulnerable point. Instead of France being able to use various German principalities as proxies, all of them save Luxembourg were now united against France, with German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck crafting a careful diplomatic policy throughout the late 19th century whose sole purpose was to isolate France.
Post-1871 France battled a united Germany with the same strategies its monarchist predecessors used against Hapsburg Spain and England. In 1907, it cobbled together a complex web of military alliances that eschewed historical precedent or ideology in the form of the Triple Entente, which included colonial rival the United Kingdom and ideological nemesis Imperial Russia. Additional French-inspired alliances encircled Germany after World War I with a band of weaker states — the so-called Little Entente alliance of Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia in the 1920s.
It didn't work. France knew from the Napoleonic era that even at its height it could not rule Europe. It soon was driven home how indefensible the North European Plain border with Germany was and how much more powerful Germany was when France was not the only player embracing nationalism. Berlin simply was able to adopt tenets of the modern nation-state with greater efficiency — in large part because its precarious geographic position in the middle of Europe required efficiency — and then fuel them with much larger natural and demographic resources than France ever could. The culmination of this dichotomy was the events of May-June 1940, when the French military crumbled in less than six weeks. The defeat was by no means solely the result of geopolitical forces, but it sprang from the fundamental imbalance of power between France and a unified Germany.
Phase IV: Managing Germany
Most historians break the modern era into the Cold War and post-Cold War periods. At least as far as France is concerned, however, Stratfor views the entire post-World War II era as a single chapter in French history that has yet to come to a conclusion. In this phase, France is attempting to find a means to live with Germany, a task greatly complicated by recent shifts in the global political geography.
From the French point of view, the difference between World War II's beginning and end was stunning. In mid-1940, France was fighting for its life and losing so badly that Germany, in essence, swallowed it whole, Five years later, Germany was not just shattered but also occupied — in part by none other than France itself. In mid-1940, the threat on the North European Plain spelled doom for Paris. Five years later, that threat had evaporated and the American nuclear umbrella made the thought of hostile military action against France on the North European Plain highly unlikely. Far from being a threat, post-war Germany was France's new Maginot Line.
And far from being exposed and vulnerable, France found itself facing the most congenial constellation of forces in its history. The United Kingdom was exhausted and had returned home to lick its wounds, pay down its war debts and deal with decolonization. Spain languished under Francisco Franco's dictatorship. The Low Countries had been leveled in the war's final year. Italy and Austria were essentially under the control of the occupying powers. And the Soviets had sealed off all of Central Europe along with the eastern portion of Germany behind the Iron Curtain.
Military options were off the table, but politically and economically there was nothing standing between France and Western European domination. And so France quite easily was able to coax the Low Countries into an economic and political partnership, while Italy and Germany were simply forced to join. The European Coal and Steel Community — precursor to the European Economic Community (EEC) and today's European Union — was born only six years after the war ended.
The stated gains of the EEC/EU have always been economic and political, but the deeper truth is that the European project has always been about French geopolitical fear and ambition. Fear in that so long as Germany is subsumed into an alliance that it does not control, then Paris need not fear another German invasion — or any invasion, for that matter. A France that can harness German strength is a France that does not need to burn resources guarding against Germany and a France that can become — once again — a global power.
It was a solid plan, taking full advantage of the American occupation of Germany, and it worked in part. During the Cold War, France was able to plot a middle course between the Soviets and Americans (much to the Americans' annoyance) and focus on deepening economic links to both Europe and its former colonies. It pursued an independent nuclear deterrent and a relationship with the second and third worlds largely unrestrained by its membership in the Western alliance.
But it didn't last. Eventually the Cold War ended, and the Soviet collapse was perceived very differently in France. While most of the free world celebrated, the French fretted. France was not a front-line state during the Cold War, so the French never saw the Soviet Union as a great threat. However, the Soviet collapse led to the reunification of Germany — and that was a top-tier issue.
No longer could France consider Germany a non-entity content to be harnessed for someone else's ends. The French knew from their disastrous firsthand experiences in the late 19th century that Germany would claw back to its position as the premier power in Europe and attempt to remake Europe in its image — with more resources and thus likely more success than the French had after World War II.
France's solution was as creative as ever: ensure that continued German membership in European institutions remained in Germany's interest. When it became apparent that German reunification was imminent, France rushed negotiations of the European Union's Maastricht Treaty on Monetary Union — essentially handing over Europe's economic policy to the Germans (the European Central Bank is, for all intents and purposes, the German Bundesbank writ large). Twenty years on, Germany cannot abandon the European Union without triggering massive internal economic dislocations because of the economic evolutions Maastricht has wrought.
Considering the tools at hand, it is as tight a cage as the French were able to build, but that leaves the French with two long-term concerns. First, the cage breaks, Germany goes its own way and attempts to remake Europe to suit its purposes. The details of this scenario are impossible to predict, but in theme, it would be 1914 all over again. Second, the cage holds, but it constrains France more than Germany. With the Germans ever more in control of their own policies, the French can no longer take for granted their undisputed leadership of the European Union as they did during the Cold War. Germany's recent aggressiveness in seeking a German solution to the current financial crisis is an excellent case in point as to how Germany is moving beyond what France hoped would be a co-leadership structure. And then there is the simple fact of direct competition. Paris fears that the outright Franco-German economic competition that the European Union allows could end as badly for France as the direct Franco-German military competition did 70 years ago. It is probably correct. On at least one level, France in 2010 is in an even more uncomfortable situation than it was in 1871 because this time France is in the cage with Germany.
The hope in Paris is that Germany will come to the same conclusion that France has: that it lacks the geopolitical gifts and positioning to rule Europe by itself and that it needs a partner. So long as that is the case — and so long as Germany chooses France as that partner — France can breathe more easily. But the fact remains that this is a decision that will be made in Berlin, not Paris. And with that renewed cognizance in Berlin, France's strategy of managing Germany is already beginning to fail.
- Secure a larger hinterland.
- Always look east.
- Maintain influence in regions beyond Europe.
- Be flexible.
Secure a Larger Hinterland
France is the only country on the North European Plain that has an option for expansion into useful territories beyond its core without directly clashing with another major power. This begins with expanding down the plain to the Pyrenees, but many other regions are worth the time: the Rhone valley, the Mediterranean coast between the Pyrenees and the Alps, the Cotentin and Brittany Peninsulas, and even the Massif Central. While none of these areas can compare with the fertility and capital-generation capacity of the Beauce, all are valuable areas in their own right and most grant Paris influence in regions beyond the North European Plain.
Assimilating those regions — populated with Bretons, Basques and Galo-Romans — was not a simple task. Linguistic and ethnic differences require centuries to grind away. But unlike most of the similar regions in Europe, in France there are no other powers that are well-positioned to interfere with this process. The Scots and Sicilians could be reached via the sea, the Serbs and Bulgarians by any number of routes. But the minorities of France could only be accessed through France itself, making France uniquely able to centralize not only government but also identity.
Always Look East
Being situated at the western end of the North European Plain makes France the only country on the plain that has only one land approach to defend against. Paris must be ever vigilant of developments elsewhere down the plain and be prepared to intervene on any stretch of the plain it can reach in order to forestall or hamstring potential threats.
As France discovered that it must centralize, the Beauce became even more important and — due to its position on the plain — more vulnerable. It became quite clear to its rivals that making a run for Paris and thus knocking out the nerve center of France was a simple means of taking over the entire country. The Maginot Line is simply the 20th century incarnation of a series of fortresses that were first built in the 17th century in an attempt to forestall a military conquest.
In other eras the French were more proactive, sometimes occupying portions of the Netherlands or Germany as France did near the end of the Hapsburg era, sometimes carving out buffer states as it did with Belgium in the 19th century.
Maintain Influence in Regions Beyond Western Europe
Unlike the United Kingdom, whose expansion into empire was a natural step in its evolution as a naval power, France's overseas empire was almost wholly artificial. The empire did not exist to expand Paris' power per se but to grant the French an eye and hand in far off places to complicate the doings of others. North African colonies could be used to disrupt Italy, North American and Southeast Asian colonies to cause heartburn for the English. It did not so much matter that these colonies were profitable (most were not) so long as a French presence in them complicated the lives of France's foes. This strategy continued throughout the Cold War as France used a long list of third-world leaders to complicate American, British, Soviet and German policies globally (roughly in that order).
These colonial assets served one more critical role for Paris: They were disposable. Because they were not designed to be profitable, it did not unduly harm France when they were lost or traded away. After all, France's primary concern is the North European Plain. If a piece of the empire needed to be used as a chip on the poker table that is Europe, so be it. Louisiana was sold for loose change in order to fund the Napoleonic wars, while Algeria was ultimately abandoned — despite being home to some 1 million ethnic French — so that Charles de Gaulle could focus attention on more important matters at home and in the rest of Europe.
Geopolitics is not ideological or personal, although few countries have the discipline to understand that. To survive, nation-states regularly need to ally with powers they find less than ideal. For example, the United States sided with Soviet Russia during World War II and Maoist China during the Cold War to gain advantage over its rivals.
But France takes this concept to new heights. France's position on the western end of the North European Plain and sitting astride the only reliable connections between Northern and Southern Europe make it remarkably exposed to European and North African developments. France does possess a great deal of arable land and navigable waterways, but these are not sufficient resources to deal with the multiple challenges that its neighborhood constantly poses from many directions.
Consequently, France makes these kinds of less-than-ideal alliances far more often than other states. Luckily, its penchant for obtaining influence on a global scale (its third imperative) provides it with no end of potential partners. Throughout France's history, it has allied not only with the Ottoman Empire against its fellow Western Europeans but also with Protestant German states against fellow Catholic states during Europe's religious wars.
Today, France is faced with a Germany that is still tied to Paris via the European Union and NATO but is beginning to think for itself. It will take all of Paris' diplomatic flexibility, acumen and influence to maintain France's position as one of the world's premier powers. It will have to make itself indispensable to Berlin's control of Europe while making sure that it has Germany outmaneuvered on the global stage. It is a difficult challenge, but France has a 1,000-year history of diplomatic intrigue and Machiavellian politics from which to draw.