The End of French Europe?

Steven Philip Kramer. Foreign Affairs. Volume 85, Issue 4. July/August 2006.

Things Fall Apart

On May 29 of last year, French voters rejected the draft of a new EU constitution in a nationwide referendum. Although not unexpected, their vote plunged the European Union into a long period of uncertainty. It also signaled that France itself is in crisis. In saying no to a draft worked out largely by their own leaders, French voters effectively disowned those leaders—and, in the process, exported their country’s crisis to the EU. European integration and the EU constitution had largely been French endeavors, and France had long been Europe’s natural leader. A year after the vote, the key question that remains is whether the no vote, as well as the subsequent riots in the Parisian banlieues (suburbs) and the more recent mass protests against youth labor reform, has destroyed France’s ability to lead the EU, an institution France did so much to create.

France has faced similar crises in the past. Following its 1870 defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and again after the disaster of 1940 (when France fell to Germany in a mere six weeks), France struggled to maintain its national security and its rank as a great power. It tried to recover from its failure in 1870 by establishing the Third Republic, rebuilding its military, and developing alliances against Germany. The French could not agree, however, on the underlying causes of the defeat, and this prevented the creation of a unified blueprint for rebuilding the country—a lack of cohesion that led to France’s second great humiliation, in the early days of World War II.

After that war ended, France adopted a more creative approach to its reconstruction. Its leaders drew up a new model for a planned economy and a welfare state and in 1958, after another political crisis, established the Fifth Republic, adopting new political institutions that favored the executive at the expense of the legislature. Starting in the late 1940s, France’s leaders also turned to the project of European integration, using it to resolve the German problem and achieve regional leadership (generally in partnership with West Germany). France solved its own problems by solving Western Europe’s. Its solution was an existential breakthrough for Europe; European integration served Europe’s interests as well as France’s.

France’s grand ambitions now seem to have come undone. The defeat of the EU constitution in the referendum last year resulted from two factors: a general crisis in French society and the flaws inherent in the French concept of Europe. The first reflects the fact that the postwar French model—political, economic, and social—no longer functions well. France lacks faith in itself; its elite is divided over fundamental questions and has lost the confidence of the public. Its economy has suffered from slow growth for a decade, its social welfare model is under siege, and its system of ethnic integration has been challenged by the recent riots. Meanwhile, France’s positions on the EU have become increasingly self-serving and defensive. An enlarged EU has chafed under Paris’ tutelage, and French citizens have grown alarmed about the implications of EU enlargement.

To be sure, despite France’s central role in the creation of the EU, the country’s relationship with Europe has never been easy. Although Paris made European integration the cornerstone of its foreign policy after World War II, French leaders have always been reluctant to yield national sovereignty to the supranational institutions they helped midwife; witness the defeat of the European Defense Community in 1954 (an attempt to establish an integrated European army within NATO to avoid the rearmament of West Germany on a national basis) and the near defeat of the Maastricht Treaty in a French referendum in 1992. Under the Fifth Republic, France has wanted contradictory things from European integration: a supranational bloc that could stand tall in the world, but also one that required minimal sacrifice of national sovereignty from its members. French officials believed that a European community based on intergovernmentalism (with decision-making resting primarily in the hands of the representatives of the member states) offered the best means of reconciling these two goals. But it was precisely this kind of intergovernmental EU that French voters shot down last May.

The vote should be taken as a warning: France needs to rethink its national strategy, just as it did after 1870 and 1945. Although French renewal is not a sufficient condition for the future development of the EU, it is a necessary one. Unfortunately, France has accomplished nothing on this front since May 2005. If anything, the situation has deteriorated.

Out of the Ashes

In his famous book The Strange Defeat, the great historian Marc Bloch describes his experience as a French reserve officer during the disastrous Battle of France, in 1940, and then uses his historian’s training to explain the causes of the debacle. Bloch argues that France’s rapid capitulation to the Nazis was not merely a military failure but the result of more fundamental problems in French society. Bloch’s argument is relevant today: like France’s military humiliation more than 60 years ago, the defeat of the referendum last year revealed a deep-seated crisis of legitimacy stemming from the government’s failure to resolve long-term issues.

The aftermath of 1940 is also instructive. After the war, France’s quick collapse produced a widespread belief that thoroughgoing change in the country’s structure was necessary. But given the scale of the defeat and the fragmentation of French society, it took decades to establish a coherent response and to convince most of the French leadership and population to accept it.

The basic elements of the postwar French model (modified in 1958) included a strong executive and a weak parliament; an economic system with a large state sector and a significant role for state planning; an extensive welfare system that provided generous health-care, retirement, and unemployment benefits and free higher education; support for European integration based on an intergovernmental model; the use of the Franco-German partnership as an instrument for maintaining peace in Europe and exercising French influence; the rebuilding of France’s defense around a nuclear deterrent; and an ambivalent stance toward the United States, consisting of practical cooperation on concrete issues but doctrinal opposition to perceived U.S. hegemony.

By the late 1980s, the new French model had jelled. For the first time in modern history, the French political class seemed to agree on basic issues of defense, foreign affairs, and economic and social policy. The alternation between left-wing and right-wing governments no longer resulted in significant policy shifts. Ironically, it was around this time that the model also began to fail.

The simplest explanation for France’s current crisis is Jacques Chirac. Chirac has been better at defeating rivals and achieving power than he has been at using that power. Many of his difficulties derive from his failure to fulfill his 1995 campaign pledge to focus on “the forgotten man,” he who has been excluded from the benefits of French society. In addition, Chirac has shown a tendency toward risk-taking and impulsiveness that has often backfired. For example, in 1997 he chose to dissolve the National Assembly early without first establishing a persuasive theme for the subsequent campaign. This led to a Socialist victory in the parliamentary elections, forcing Chirac to work with a Socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin, for the next five years. Sticking with Jospin’s Gaullist successor, the unpopular Jean-Pierre Raffarin, from 2002 to 2005 and holding an unnecessary referendum on the EU constitution were similar blunders. So, too, was Chirac’s televised encounter with young people during the referendum campaign, when the elderly president seemed unable to respond to their concerns.

These missteps have made it impossible for Chirac to consider running for reelection when his term expires in 2007, turning him into a lame duck. The president is the author of his own misfortunes and bears considerable responsibility for France’s general problems. But Chirac’s failures also reflect underlying flaws in France’s political and constitutional system.

The fundamental constitutional problem facing France today is the same one that has bedeviled it for 200 years: how to balance the powers of the executive and the legislature. France has lurched between governmental models that grant excessive authority to the executive and those that produce all-powerful parliaments. After the failure of the Fourth Republic helped Charles de Gaulle return to power in 1958, he created a new system (the Fifth Republic) that gave great leeway to the president and stripped the Parliament of most of its independence and power. De Gaulle also established a referendum mechanism that allowed him to renew his mandate with the people directly, further marginalizing the legislature.

Ironically, this same referendum procedure has become one of the few ways for the French public to demonstrate its disapproval of the government and the president. Referendums can easily turn into plebiscites, and plebiscites into fiascos. Given this fact, submitting the EU constitution to the public for a popular vote was probably unwise.

Another grave problem in the French political system has been the replacement of a powerful antiestablishment party on the left with an equally powerful party on the extreme right. For over 30 years after World War II, France’s Stalinist Communist Party (the Parti Communiste Franais, or PCF) exercised a stranglehold over the country’s political system. The PCF intimidated and weakened France’s noncommunist left, forcing it to choose between allying with the center (and losing its base) or siding with the PCF (and losing its democratic credentials). This impossible choice helped ensure that France was ruled by a solid right-wing majority for many years after 1958. Only Franois Mitterrand was able to tame the PCF—using its electoral support to win power in 1981, then keeping it hostage within his government, and finally nudging it into the dustbin of history.

Mitterrand’s outmaneuvering of the PCF seemed at first to open the way to a less ideological political system based on a few large centrist parties. With the sidelining of the PCF, however, much of the populist and nationalist left simply switched sides, joining with the unreconstructed extreme right to create the powerful National Front. The National Front, which has been led by Jean-Marie Le Pen since 1972, promised to protect French workers from economic and social change—and to block immigration to their neighborhoods. In the last 20 years, the party has become a durable, well-organized, and growing force of opposition, despite regular predictions of its imminent demise.

The National Front’s rhetoric is fascist, racist, xenophobic, and often anti-Semitic, as well as staunchly anti-EU. Its vocal opposition to Arab and Muslim immigration has made bigotry an acceptable part of France’s national dialogue, frightening minorities, tempting the conventional right to consider tactical alliances with it on the local level, and creating a bloc of no voters on any referendum concerning Europe. Le Pen’s appeal, moreover, has made him the kingmaker of French politics. In 1997, the National Front threw the parliamentary elections to the Socialists. Then, in 2002, Le Pen came in second in the first round of voting for president, forcing Jospin out of the runoff and thus assuring Chirac’s victory.

Since 2002, the Socialist Party has done little to rebuild its strength and unify a divided left. This means that in the next election, the National Front could once again make it to the runoff—beating out either the fragmented left or the fragmented mainstream right. Indeed, current infighting within the latter camp is playing into Le Pen’s hands.

Seeds of Discontent

The root of the French public’s political discontent is primarily economic, the result above all of chronic unemployment. After World War II, central economic planning and a large state sector helped France achieve 30 years of rapid economic growth. Starting in the 1990s, however, the government began liberalizing the economy. State planning was reduced, nationalized industries were privatized, and French firms began to compete well globally. But unemployment has remained at around ten percent for two decades. The major cause of this problem has been France’s highly restricted labor market, which makes employers reluctant to hire new workers in good times because they cannot be laid off during economic downturns.

To remedy this problem, French governments have tried to “share” employment by reducing the workweek to 35 hours, encouraging early retirement, and creating temporary public-sector jobs for the young. None of these measures has been effective at reducing long-term unemployment, and some, such as early retirement, have only increased the deficits incurred by the welfare state. Women, minorities, and the young have remained particularly vulnerable.

Earlier this year, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin attempted to address the problem of youth unemployment by creating temporary labor contracts for first-time employees under 25, which would have allowed them to be fired without cause in their first two years on the job. The measure was unlikely to significantly reduce unemployment, however, and it only enraged France’s young people, who want the same kind of job security as their elders. The move was also unpopular with older working adults, who feared that it was the beginning of an effort to chip away at their job protections as well. The result was a month of strikes and protests, which ended when the government repealed the law.

Perhaps the hardest hit by France’s unemployment problem are the country’s ethnic minorities. Often called “immigrants,” many of these people are in fact second-generation French citizens. In many ways, the riots they staged in the fall of 2005 were reminiscent of the inner-city race riots that rocked many major U.S. cities in the 1960s. To be sure, the French riots were far less violent than their U.S. counterparts. Yet in some respects the situation for ethnic minorities in France today is worse than was the plight of African Americans in the 1960s. After all, American blacks had a mass civil rights movement to advocate on their behalf and gifted leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. American blacks were also represented in Congress, local government, and both major political parties. President Lyndon Johnson was sympathetic to their cause and pushed a variety of civil rights and social legislation through Congress that by the end of the century had produced significant results.

In France today, by contrast, the “outsiders” do not even share a collective identity, and they lack political organization and representation in French politics. During the 1960s, white Americans at least viewed blacks as Americans, whereas in France, most inhabitants of the poor ethnic suburbs, whatever their actual nationality, are seen as foreigners by other French citizens. It does not help that many of France’s ethnic poor are also Muslims at a time when Islam inspires fear throughout Europe.

American blacks, moreover, eventually came to benefit from affirmative action, which helped accelerate their transition to the middle class. France’s republican creed makes such policies unacceptable to the mainstream. But as the riots showed, neglect (whether benign or not) of France’s ethnic poor is no longer possible. Although only long-term policies will produce fundamental change, immediate action is necessary to show that the state is committed to helping them.

Such action, however, does not seem to be forthcoming. In the meantime, France’s welfare state remains organized not along egalitarian lines, but in a guild-like fashion. Different professions retain different retirement systems and defend their privileges fiercely. Reform of the labor market and the welfare state is regularly blocked by groups with a stranglehold on the economy, such as railroad and metro unions. France’s governments, remembering the near revolution of May 1968, back down from most confrontations with workers—as happened this spring. The result is deadlock.

The failure to reform is also justified by reference to bugbears such as globalization and what Chirac, out of cynicism or actual belief, has called the ultraliberal current that could lead to an “Anglo-Saxon and Atlanticist” Europe. No matter that France competes fairly well in a global world or that there is no single “Anglo-Saxon social model” (the United Kingdom’s is actually closer to the European welfare-state model than it is to the United States’). No matter that some smaller European democracies, such as Sweden, are fairly successful in reconciling a vigorous, competitive economy and an open labor market with a higher degree of egalitarianism and social solidarity than exists in France.

Together, these factors have contributed to economic stagnation and festering social problems that are undermining France’s influence in Europe. After all, how can Paris lead the EU—a largely economic organization—when it cannot reduce chronic unemployment at home? France could not even manage to lower its budgetary deficit to three percent of GDP, as was required by the rules of the European Monetary Union; to avoid sanction, it had (together with Germany) to rewrite the rules.

Friends and Neighbors

As France’s influence in the EU has waned in the last few years—and especially since the EU was enlarged in 2004—French leaders and the French public have begun to question whether the organization still serves their interests. The French vision of Europe has rested on three principles: an intergovernmentalism that produced the least possible infringement on French sovereignty (especially the powers of its president), French leadership (or, at least, Franco-German leadership on French terms), and a “European Europe” independent of U.S. dominance. Recently, however, all three of these basic principles have created problems.

The intergovernmental model, for example, carries a high cost. Protecting French sovereignty has meant opposing a strong European Parliament and the direct election of European leaders. But this has led to an EU that is technocratic and increasingly opaque to ordinary citizens, who have no voice in its policies. France’s efforts, in other words, have helped create an EU that is hard to love, easy to fear, and can be voted down without much regret—as happened in last year’s referendum.

Meanwhile, French influence over the EU has also started to slip. Until recently, Franco-German leadership of the EU went largely unchallenged, as had Franco-German leadership of its forerunners. When France and Germany worked together, they were usually able to create consensus; when they opposed an initiative, it failed. For years, there was no real alternative to their stewardship. The United Kingdom did not join the EU (then the European Community) until 1973, and it remained an outsider long after that because of its ambivalence toward European integration and the unattractiveness of the British socioeconomic model.

More recently, however, the situation has changed radically. Thanks to EU enlargement and the divisive war in Iraq, the union now has several midsize members, such as Poland and Spain, that are unwilling to simply follow the Franco-German lead—especially since France and Germany appear more concerned these days with protecting their own interests than with protecting those of the EU as a whole. Meanwhile, London has become a more engaged EU player, and the United Kingdom now represents a more successful socioeconomic model than does either France or Germany. No wonder many in France feel they have lost their grip over the EU. Anxiety over that loss was reflected in the defeat of the constitutional referendum. Unfortunately, the vote only further weakened France’s influence over the union—something likely to worsen its anxiety in the future.

France’s third principle—resisting U.S. influence—has been a feature of French foreign policy for years. During the Cold War, France resented what it perceived as U.S. hegemony in Europe; when the Cold War ended, Paris resented Washington’s sole-superpower status even more. At the same time, France had usually stuck with the United States (at least in its own fashion) when it mattered most—whether during the Cuban missile crisis or the Persian Gulf War.

This pattern changed in 2003; Iraq became a turning point in 50 years of French-U.S. relations. In response to what was arguably the most unilateral act by a post-World War II U.S. government (and one of its worst strategic judgment calls), Paris, while declaring the virtues of “multipolarity,” followed Berlin’s lead into confrontation with Washington. This made all the difference at the United Nations; without French support in the Security Council, neither Russia nor China (to say nothing of the smaller states) would likely have taken on the United States. With France at their side, they were emboldened, and together they dealt the United States a stinging blow.

Tactically, France’s UN diplomacy led to a brilliant victory: the humiliation of the United States in the Security Council. Strategically, it was another of Chirac’s blunders. France hardly managed to balance the United States: Washington simply went to war without it. In the meantime, France’s action managed to disrupt both transatlantic relations—Washington rightly construed French advocacy of “multipolarity” as an attack on U.S. power—and the EU, with little advantage for Paris or any of the other parties concerned.

Lost Leader?

Despite French voters’ rejection of the EU constitution, France remains important to the union. Paris has, however, lost its ability to lead the EU. This is bad not just for France, but for Europe as well, for the EU cannot hope to make any real progress in areas such as institutional reform and the forging of a common foreign and defense policy without France. Still, if France is ever to resume its leadership of the union, it needs to rethink its identity, its goals, and its strategies. Above all, it needs to overcome the paralyzing fear of change—change that, if properly undertaken, would be salutary. Following World War II, France tried to solve Europe’s problems by solving its own. The same needs to be done today.

This will require nothing less than a paradigm shift in the thinking of French elites and the French population at large. The French must accept the fact that the days of national and even regional economies are over. Globalization presents opportunities, not just risks. To exploit them, France must make good use of its increasingly dynamic economy and strong scientific and educational base.

To improve its economic odds, France must restore the centrality of work as an instrument of empowerment and fulfillment. A freer labor market would help reduce unemployment and be more inclusive of minorities, women, and the poor. Promoting growth might mean accepting a little more insecurity, but French workers should remember that in a dynamic economy, they will be more likely to find new jobs if they lose the ones they have. Paris must place social benefits, such as pensions, retirement, and health care, within a national framework, one that is egalitarian and realistic. While other social democracies are raising the retirement age to above 65, France cannot continue to allow members of certain privileged groups (such as transport workers) to retire at 55 or 60. Rather than holding fast to a dysfunctional model and projecting its fears onto the outside world, Paris should encourage greater curiosity about the way other advanced societies (including France’s neighbors) deal with labor and welfare-state reform.

By focusing more on economic growth and less on the defense of the French social model, the French government could help reduce its citizens’ fear of immigrants, from both within the EU (the infamous “Polish plumbers,” for example) and without. Historically, France has always benefited from its immigrants, even if it has always resented them. To address matters today, France must start working harder to assimilate its non-European-born citizens. Last year’s riots must be taken seriously. Paris should not merely improve services and opportunities in the banlieues; it must do away with de facto segregation. The best way to prevent French Muslims from developing a separate identity and turning to radical Islam would be to offer them decent employment and a shot at social mobility. Affirmative action in the United States—even though it runs counter to U.S. values—has resulted in social mobility for a vast portion of black Americans. Something similar should be considered in France, as should efforts aimed at facilitating real involvement of minorities in political life.

Such policies, along with a strong educational effort, might also reduce the appeal of the National Front. Eradicating it will not be easy—France has a long history of extreme right-wing parties—but doing so is crucial. The National Front only prospers when France’s mainstream politics are defensive and limit genuine debate. The current balance between executive and legislative powers is tilted too far toward the former. When the public cannot effectively channel popular discontent and opposition through Parliament, it takes to the street. Contrary to conventional wisdom, moreover, French presidents are as much the victim of the current system as is the legislature, since they bear excessive responsibility for what does or does not get accomplished. At the very minimum, France should return to a system in which cabinet ministers are members of Parliament, and Parliament must be allowed to have stronger committees and greater budgetary powers. These changes can and should be made within the existing system; it is not necessary to invent a new one.

A less defensive France would be more effective as an EU leader. France will have to find ways to make the EU more transparent and more attractive to the citizens of Europe. This can no longer be done through intergovernmentalism, which means, in practice, technocracy and a democratic deficit. The current, incremental approach to EU reform—with successive intergovernmental conferences where member states tinker with the mechanisms of government—will not thrive now that the EU has 25 members. France must be prepared to abandon more of its sovereignty if the EU is to fulfill France’s grander ambitions for Europe.

Finally, Paris must redefine the place of France and Europe in the world—and their relationship with the United States. It should be apparent that the kind of intra-European split that occurred over the Iraq war cannot be repeated. France, Germany, and the United Kingdom must make a genuine effort to bring their foreign policies closer into line. Perhaps Germany under Chancellor Angela Merkel will be more open to global engagement. Even so, it will remain for London and Paris to resolve the key issue that has long divided them: how to deal with Washington.

Relations with the United States should be seen not as an end of strategy but as a means. Of course, this begs the question, a means to what? In order to answer it, French leaders must think long and hard about how they want the world to look in the future. Mobilizing Europe around its own strategic vision, rather than obsessing over the United States, should form the basis of a new European foreign policy that France might still be able to lead.