Last week, French President Emmanuel Macron called for a review of defense cooperation in the European Union – because, he said, the EU can no longer rely on the United States for its security. Macron said it was time for the EU to develop a strategic relationship with Turkey and to bring EU relations with Russia out of the Cold War and into the 21st century. On the same day, Macron threw down the gauntlet on Hungary, Italy and any other nationalist European country challenging his self-described “progressive” view of the EU’s future. Perhaps most significantly, France softened its hitherto hard-line position on Brexit. France, not Germany, has been the EU’s dominant voice on Brexit, and Paris’ softening means the European Commission may not be far behind.
That France has become the most outspoken champion of European integration is ironic. After World War II, France was one of integration’s most recalcitrant critics. That is admittedly a slight exaggeration – France did desire integration, but not of the cooperative sort. After the war, France wanted to dismember Germany and seize its resources – most importantly its coke and coal – for itself. The goal was twofold: to prevent Berlin from posing a threat to French sovereignty ever again and to rebuild the French economy with German resources. From Paris’ point of view, the only problem with Versailles was that it had not gone far enough, and the end of the war offered a wonderful opportunity to repair its shortcomings.
France’s support for the creation of what would become the EU’s grandfather, the European Coal and Steel Community, in 1952 came only after the U.S. and U.K. promptly told France that Germany was not to be dismembered (at least, not any more than it already had been by the Soviets and the Allies). Instead, West Germany would be rehabilitated as a liberal democracy in a new international order, and France would have to learn to live with it. France may have had a seat at the Allied table, but the seat had been offered as a matter of etiquette more than anything else. The Allies knew it wasn’t France that had defeated Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Germany’s defeat did not mean France would be allowed to take its place as European hegemon.
For the next 66 years and counting, French strategy has been more or less locked in place. The French economy needed privileged access to German imports to recover after the war. And French security depended on British and American guarantees against German revanchism and Soviet ambitions, not to mention material support for France’s ill-fated attempts to keep what was left of its empire in Indochina and Algeria. If France could not destroy Germany, it would do the next best thing – integrate Germany into Europe on France’s terms. In 1948, it was the U.K. and the U.S. urging European integration. By 1950, European integration had become France’s cause celebre. In fact, one of the reasons the U.K. did not join the new ECSC was because the French-designed integration went further than the British were willing to stomach.
Emmanuel Macron is this line of strategic thinking made flesh. Macron clothes his support of EU integration in the form of “progressivism,” but that is more personal preference than accurate depiction. The European Union has come under great strain since the 2008 financial crisis. Greece very nearly left. Eastern European states like Hungary and Poland are in open political rebellion. And most worrying of all, Germany has become the center of gravity of the European project. Germany has lost some of its credibility because of its support for austerity and migration, but even so, what began as a French project to control Germany has evolved into a German project to prosper from Europe. Germany, reunified in 1990, has an economy almost 40 percent larger than France’s. Germany’s export supply chain is Europe’s blood supply. In an era when euros, not tanks, define power in Europe, Paris has found itself playing second fiddle to Berlin. For France, all of this means the EU needs serious reform.
The answer to this problem from France’s point of view is the same as it was in 1952, when the ECSC came into being – more centralized control, not less. The 1950 Schuman Plan, which led to the creation of the ECSC, proposed to put all French-German coal and steel production under a single joint “High Authority,” which would have the power to set prices, direct investment and take whatever other measures were necessary to encourage competition. The ECSC never fully exercised its considerable powers, but its original conception was nothing less than French control of German resources dressed up as a multilateral “European” institution. It is possible to see in this historical echo the impetus for the reforms France is proposing in the EU today: creating a joint EU defense force (which France, as the most significant military power on the Continent, would surely dominate), instituting a body to oversee all EU economic policy and developing a common eurozone budget.
Germany is suspicious of France’s reform efforts because Germany wants to preserve the status quo. The integrationists did their job well: Germany is militarily irrelevant but economically prosperous, and it thinks primarily in economic terms. For Germany, that means keeping the eurozone together so that more European countries can buy German goods. It means making sure that German taxpayers don’t have to bail out Greeks or Italians in times of financial crisis. And it means ensuring that Germany can do what it wants with its massive and ever-growing trade surplus – rather than being forced to spend it on other European countries. For France, the issue is not keeping the eurozone together so much as it is keeping Germany tied to an institutional framework that keeps it weaker than and dependent on France. That is why France is pushing for a so-called two-speed system, in which countries that want more integration can have it, and countries that Macron derides as nationalist, like Hungary, can stop gumming up the works.
To accomplish this, France is doing what all aspiring dominant powers do: It is attempting to recreate its would-be partners and institutions in its own image. In this sense, Paris can use Brexit to its advantage, because it means one less powerful voice with which to struggle over defining the EU’s future. Germany, despite and because of its economic power, cannot push too hard because the historical memory of the last time Germany got heavy-handed in Europe is still present. On the flip side, there is no one still living who personally experienced the Napoleonic wars or France’s many attempts to build a mighty French empire encompassing the entire European peninsula. A country like Hungary does not fit in Macron’s EU because Hungary will not kowtow to Paris, and France can afford to sacrifice Hungary or any other Eastern European satellite state. A more integrated EU-16 in which France has a dominant position serves France’s strategic interests better than a diffuse EU-27 – as long as Germany remains in the bloc.
France is in a strong position – arguably the strongest position it has been in since before World War I began. Its economy, though stagnant, is still second largest in Europe. Crucially, France’s demographics are relatively healthy. Like most European countries, France’s fertility rate dropped below replacement level in the late 1970s and remained there for roughly two decades. But in the 2000s, France started having more babies while Germany and other countries didn’t. While most European countries are aging, France is getting younger. The dividends of this “stimulus” package will allow France’s economy to grow while young Germans, Italians and Poles will be coping with how to pay for the ever-increasing older share of their populations. And unlike other European countries, France has remained a first-rate military power. France does not require U.S. protection anymore, and that France ever needed it in the first place has always been something of an embarrassment to the Gaullist mindset.
Macron got himself in some hot water over the term “Gaul” late last week – not in reference to Charles de Gaulle, but to the ancient Celtic ancestors of the French people. While visiting Copenhagen, Macron lamented the French people’s obstinacy toward the neoliberal economic reforms he wants to institute. He expressed a longing that his “Gauls, who are resistant to change” be more like the Danish “Lutheran people, who have lived through the transformations of recent years.” The nationalists in France were angered by Macron’s derision. This is the same faction in France that wanted to dismember Germany and wanted no part in NATO or the charity of the Allies at the end of World War II. It is a faction that is as euroskeptic as Macron is euro-smitten. De Gaulle and a generation of leaders after him, though profoundly prideful of the French nation, controlled nationalist extremes because France’s challenges after World War II required a certain degree of pragmatism. France had no choice but to support EU integration and to align itself with the United States, even if it held its nose while doing it.
That the extreme nationalist strain in French politics has become stronger even as the current French government pushes for greater European integration is not a coincidence. Both of these foreign policy factions inside France want the same strategic ends: the neutralization of Germany as a threat, the decoupling of French foreign policy from the U.S. and a dominant position for France on the European continent. They just have very different ideas about how to achieve those goals. Macron aims to achieve them with a stronger, French-reformed EU, and that is why he is engaging in a war of words with leaders like Viktor Orban and pushing for new and better “High Authorities” in Brussels. The bureaucrat is mightier than the sword.
This is not about progressives and nationalists. It has become cliche to talk about the “German question.” But before there was a German question, there was a “French question.” Based on how France is pursuing its strategic ends, it’s one we ought to be asking ourselves again.