Sunday 23 October 2016

France must buck up to halt 'German' EU

Despite many economic positives, France is paralysed by defeatism, says Dan O'Brien. It needs to reassert itself to balance German influence

Published 14/06/2015 | 02:30

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande

On this very morning, 75 years ago, Nazis troops marched into Paris capturing the undefended capital of continental Europe's once dominant power. Among the many consequences for France of the fall of Paris was the collapse shortly thereafter of the Third Republic, which had come into being 70 years earlier during the country's last war with Germany. That war, too, ended in defeat for France.

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History always explains a lot about how countries act. Does France's history explain its passivity today in the face of a rising Germany?

Before answering that question, consider just how many major reversals and defeats France has suffered over the past two centuries.

Thursday is the 200th anniversary of Waterloo. Defeat for France that day in Flanders ended its two centuries and more as Europe's pre-eminent power.

As if these two anniversaries were not enough, France will, in a few short months, begin marking (protractedly) the bloodiest battle in the bloodiest war it has ever fought. Hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen died over the course of the nine-month battle of Verdun.

Although France was on the winning side in World War I, the human cost of 1.5 million dead is barely conceivable to the 21st-Century European mind. Relative to population, French deaths were greater than those suffered by defeated Germany, and twice those suffered by Britain.

Taking a bird's eye view of all these developments, it is clear that France has had a bad 200 years, with defeat and catastrophe punctuating its decline. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this long history explains one of the mysteries of much more recent European history.

Since the great crash of September 2008 and the closely connected eruption of the euro crisis in early 2010, France has been curiously quiet in the wake of so much change. Angela Merkel has become the dominant European leader with barely a whimper from Paris. Both the current French president, Francois Hollande, and his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, have allowed Merkel call the shots in a manner that is hard to imagine earlier French presidents accepting.

The timidity of France over the course of the past five years in influencing the response to the crisis and shaping the new structures and rules in the eurozone is surprising in a number of respects.

French views on most aspects of economic management are diametrically opposed to Germany's. Despite this it has rolled over again and again, allowing the latter to get its way on almost every major issue. France has put up little in the way of sustained opposition, and done even less alliance building to further its cause. This is not how the Franco-German relationship has usually worked in the period since World War II.

After 1945, Germany quickly recovered, regaining its status as Europe's biggest economy. But because of the three wars it had fought since it was unified in the 1870s, and in particular because of the shame the Nazi period brought on it, Germany allowed economically weaker France a much greater say in European affairs than its relative power would naturally warrant. That was the price of rehabilitation.

France was quite happy to take advantage of Germany's restraint and sense of guilt for its own ends - the common agriculture policy, from which Irish farmers have benefited so handsomely, was one example. France demanded it in the early days of the European integration project, knowing full well that it would mean a permanent flow of money from east to west across the Rhine. Germany accepted and paid up.

But with so much time having passed since the war, Germany is fully now rehabilitated. Its gradual normalisation in the way it asserts itself in Europe and in the world, including, most sensitively, militarily has been reflective of that - it is more than 15 years since its first offensive deployment (in the Balkans) in the post-World War II era.

But it has been the eruption of the euro crisis, more than anything else, that has exposed the change in the power dynamic in the Franco-German relationship.

The usual explanation for this is economic. The conventional wisdom has it that because the crisis is, at its root, one of economics - a badly designed currency union - the strongest economy has most responsibility to deal with it. But the conventional wisdom that Germany is much stronger economically than France is exaggerated. Germany is not as strong as it seems, nor France as weak.

German weaknesses - including an uncompetitive services sector, awful demographics, and a still underdeveloped east - are increasingly being highlighted by analysts and commentators. But there is still little in the way of balance about France. It certainly has its weaknesses, most particularly a strong hostility to change and reform, but they are often exaggerated. A greater analytical failure is the ignoring or downplaying of its strengths.

The core of France's corporate sector is strong and highly globalised - it has more investments abroad relative to the size of its economy than Germany. French workers are among the most productive in the world, and far more productive than British workers, despite much lecturing from across the English Channel that France should do as the British do. As a country, France pays its way in the world - its international balance of payments, whether in surplus or deficit - is almost always small. And because French women have more babies than almost any other European country, its demographic outlook is better than most, meaning, among other things, that the costs of societal ageing will be less than elsewhere.

But positives such as these are rarely discussed. France, instead, seems to be paralysed by defeatism. Every year brings at least one new book analysing, highlighting, more often than not, bemoaning the state of the country and where it is going. What's Wrong with France?, France on the Brink, France in Denial, France in Free Fall and France's Suicide are just some of the titles of books written by authors across the political spectrum about the downward trajectory they believe their country to be on. All of this seems more to do with a collective crisis of confidence, as it is simply out of proportion to any calm, objective assessment of the country's strengths and weaknesses. In searching for an explanation, it is very difficult to avoid the conclusion that the many major reversals of the past two centuries have shattered French confidence to the point that the country, its governments and its people are paralysed by pessimism.

If this is the case, it will have serious consequences for the entire continent. If France doesn't buck up and get back in the European game, there seems little to stop a more German Europe emerging. That is not in any way to be hostile towards Germany; it is merely to say that power is exercised best when it is checked and balanced. With Britain moving further from the European mainstream by the week and Italy - the other large EU power - beset by crisis that, it is no exaggeration to say, is existential, only France can play the role of a balancing power to Germany.

Sunday Independent

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