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How Macron manipulates Europe Britain and France are at war again

Manu in Strasbourg. Credit: BERTRAND GUAY/POOL/AFP/ Getty


January 24, 2022   6 mins

France — in reality, Emmanuel Macron — has taken up the presidency of the EU, or “our Europe”, as he calls it. He set the scene with a typically magniloquent speech to the European parliament, meeting symbolically (as the French insist) in Strasbourg. Some of the speech was the kind of boastful Euro-nationalism I have always found distasteful: about Europe’s “unique civilization”, its “invention” of democracy, its “solidarity unique in the world”, its “incomparable culture”, “our uniqueness as Europeans,” and so on.

When to this rhetoric are added fanciful claims about the EU’s unique vaccine success (based on its “unique solidarity” — patently lacking) and its efforts to advance “the sovereignty of peoples” (which it is busily undermining), one is tempted to conclude that everyone knows this is just flim-flam to gratify its audience of Euro MPs. A dash of cynicism rarely goes amiss, and the simplest explanation is that Macron is facing an election in April, and wants to buttress his image as the philosopher-king of both Europe and France.

Macron is now the only tirelessly enthusiastic Europhile among France’s leading politicians. When he was elected in 2017, he was the only candidate standing on a “European” platform. That will be true again this year. It may seem a risky strategy, as the French electorate is no more Europhile than the British was. But the French, whatever their misgivings about the EU, are more resigned to it. Marine Le Pen crashed in the last presidential campaign when she could not explain how to get out of the eurozone, which is the crucial issue.

Besides, what most people in France feel about the EU does not much matter. In reaction to the parliamentary systems of the Third and Fourth Republics, the presidential system of the Fifth, designed for Charles de Gaulle, provides France with a “republican monarch” to provide national leadership, especially in foreign policy. This means doing what the elite thinks is in the national interest. De Gaulle put it memorably: how can you govern a nation with 246 sorts of cheese? The answer is by not being guided by the cheese-makers.

France, even more than most democracies, has government by an elite, practically a caste. I once asked a rising young French diplomat how it was that they all seemed to agree. He unhesitatingly said it was learnt at “Sciences Po”. The distinguished Institut des Sciences Politiques was deliberately set up in the 1870s, after a disastrous cycle of revolutions and defeats, to “create a brain for the people”. Sciences Po graduates, and those from other elite training schools, most famously the École Polytechnique and the École Nationale d’Administration (which Macron attended, after graduating from Sciences Po), still shape the brain that runs France. Unlike elite educational establishments in Britain or the United States — Oxbridge or the Ivy League, for example — these are smaller, more exclusive, and above all dedicated primarily to State service. Like a civilian Sandhurst or West Point.

So while electoral tactics come and go, Macron is really the spokesman for a much older and deeper consensus. His Europeanism is more eloquent, but his views are little different from those of his predecessors. Part of this is a simple conviction that France is unique, and the legitimate cultural and political leader of Europe. De Gaulle famously wrote that he had always believed France dedicated “to an eminent and exceptional destiny”. As Harold Macmillan realised, when de Gaulle, “says ‘Europe’, he means ‘France’.” Macron’s Strasbourg speech, in similarly European language, reflects France’s historic fears and ambitions: plus ça change.

These fears have their roots in the catastrophe of 1870, when Prussia invaded, bombarded Paris, destroyed French primacy in Europe, and emerged as the new German Empire. Since then, relations with Germany have dominated French foreign policy, traumatically confirmed by two world wars. “France has a German policy, she has no other,” wrote a leading French commentator soon after the end of the Second World War. Her European policy is her German policy.

After 1870, it took 50 years for France’s strategy for recovery to be worked out. At first, there were bitter partisan divisions — bitter enough to get a leading politician shot leaving parliament — about whether true patriotism meant responding to defeat by turning away from Europe to gain colonies or concentrating forces on “the blue line of the Vosges”, the mountains that ran along the new border with Germany.

In the end, the French decided to do both, creating a global empire to buttress its power in Europe. In the Twenties, realising that Germany’s defeat in the First World War had not destroyed its power, and that France could not rely on British or American support, Paris proposed European integration.

This was to be the means of both reconciling and controlling Germany. After a promising start, it failed during the Thirties. But the idea never went away, and the second defeat of Germany, in 1945, produced the same logic, especially when again Britain and America seemed, in French eyes, to be unreliable allies. European integration, culminating in the creation of the euro, was to be the principal means of taming German power — sweetened by fulsome expressions of friendship.

Macron’s speech shows that France’s grand strategy — the strategy of its governing caste — has been based on the same logic for nearly a century. Partnership with Germany within a European framework is the bedrock. And if Germany is unresponsive, the language becomes more enticing and the pressure more sustained. This time, Macron has told the European parliament that France and Germany have agreed to give it more power — the right to initiate legislation, hitherto the monopoly of the Commission. Not much doubt who is steering the ship.

And what of other allies? Russia — whether ruled by the tsars, the Communists or today’s plutocracy — has been a difficult but always tempting geopolitical partner: France’s principal ally from 1890 to 1917, and an ally again in 1935. And now? Macron says Russia must be negotiated with over Ukraine, to find a political compromise. Even more strikingly, he announces a “dialogue” with the Russians over the “collective security” of a new “European order”, a “security order”. This may permit the Western Balkans to join the EU, but that, he says, will require EU governance to become more centralised.

He sees the “vocation of our Europe” — of France, in other words — to be a “true balancing power”, which seems to mean more distanced from the Atlantic alliance. Part of this vision is of a new “alliance” between the EU and Africa, emphasising the connections between the two coasts of the Mediterranean, the core of the old French empire.

This is Gaullism, pure and simple. Pulling away from the “Anglo-Saxons”, emphasising the special relationship with Germany, flirting with Russia, influencing Africa. Unlike Britain, France has unashamedly clung to its imperial and post-imperial role, maintaining a military, political and financial presence in its former African colonies, legally converting far-flung island possessions into parts of France (and hence parts of the EU), and promoting la Francophonie, its Commonwealth equivalent. As noted earlier, since the 1880s it has seen its global role as complementary to its European status. European integration continues this strategy: to the outside world, France presents itself as the leader of Europe, and to Europe it presents itself as the Continent’s only global power, with nuclear weapons, overseas territories, and a UN Security Council seat. Such high-flown ambition might eventually prove illusory. But one has to admire the determination. There is no alternative plan: the die has long been cast.

Where does Britain stand in the French vision? Macron referred to “ties of friendship” with “the British people” — but pointedly not with their government. To follow “a common path” after Brexit requires Whitehall to apply “in good faith” agreements on Northern Ireland and fisheries — the “condition for staying friends”. Any Brexiteer will reply that it is France that has lacked good faith over the Northern Ireland Protocol and fishing. No matter: Macron thinks he wields the EU as a big stick, and perhaps he does.

Brexit poses both a danger and an opportunity, as has been clear since 2016. Britain cannot be allowed to leave the EU successfully, or France’s European project is threatened. But if Britain came to accept some sort of subordinate status, conforming with the EU’s (and hence France’s) political and economic “common path”, France’s position would be strengthened. The resignation of Lord Frost, who had explicitly rejected this, caused rejoicing at the ElysĂ©e, where Liz Truss seems to be seen as a lightweight.

A former European Commissioner with a keen eye for history recently told me that he thought Britain and France had been engaged, since the beginning of European integration in the Fifties, in their third Hundred Years’ War. The first, ending in 1453, was won by the French. The second, ending in 1815, by the British. In the third, we still have another three decades to go.


Professor Robert Tombs is a Fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge, and the author of The English and Their History


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Peter LR
Peter LR
2 years ago

“We fully share the diagnosis made by the Brexiteers but France is not England. For one thing, England has won all its wars for the past two centuries and we have lost all of ours. That means we don’t have as much confidence in ourselves.”
That’s the view of France by Eric Zemmour standing against Macron for President. It’s impossible for the elites to accept and I imagine he’ll lose. The bien pensant crowd meeting in Davros last week produced a statement in which they actually referred to themselves as the elite and moaned that they were unloved!
I hope Liz Truss doesn’t disappoint by acting as a lightweight so we can win the great escape from Macron’s Europe and be friends on equal terms.

Last edited 2 years ago by Peter LR
Brian Burnell
Brian Burnell
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter LR

I hope Liz Truss doesn’t disappoint by acting as a lightweight so we can win the great escape from Macron’s Europe and be friends on equal terms.”
Dream on sunshine! The French people (as distinct from their government) are wonderful. However, we will never be friends.

Peter LR
Peter LR
2 years ago
Reply to  Brian Burnell

Brian, all people become wonderful once politics is removed. Friends! – well the Entente Cordiale wasn’t exactly two fingers across the Channel. We share production of parts for planes and cars; why we even share our fish with them. I like watching them play Rugby – classy: d’accord!

Last edited 2 years ago by Peter LR
Spencer Dugdale
Spencer Dugdale
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter LR

Actually, Britain has ony won wars when in an alliance. The one time it fought alone – American war of Independence – it lost.

Anthony Abbott
Anthony Abbott
2 years ago

Getting other people to fight our wars for us has been the British genius

Andrew D
Andrew D
2 years ago

Falklands?

SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew D

Second Boer War, Sikh Wars, Kaffir Wars, Zulu War, and on and on really.

SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
2 years ago

Besides the American rebels, we were fighting the French, Spanish & Dutch, plus dealing with Armed Neutrality from Russia & Prussia.
All in all we did quite well although we must remember that ‘self praise is no recommendation’.

Christian Moon
Christian Moon
2 years ago

Boer War? But you appear to have no idea how many colonial wars were actually fought.
Britain no more lost the American Independence War than it lost the English Civil War: they were both liberal insurrections against the crown. Who but a monarchist would identify the crown with the country?

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

I can remember going through a supermarket with my friend in London many years ago and picking up and examining everything we wanted and rejecting all the French produce. Great hilarity and enjoyment. I can’t remember what the topic of the time was, but reading this I am proud to realize that I have been a small part of the latest 100 year war.

Brian Burnell
Brian Burnell
2 years ago

I love some french cheeses and console myself with the thought that those cheesemakers are not responsible for French policy, and probably didn’t vote for Micron.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Brian Burnell

Here in South Africa we make our own Brie and Camembert and bubbles
. I get your point, but want to point out that Parisiennes are very rude – both times I’ve been there. Excepting the nice gentleman who flashed me a suitcase full of cash on a street corner.

SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
2 years ago

What has happened in to Julia Blinde?
Your mild admonishment seems to have sent her back to the Asylum. Well done indeed.

Jean Nutley
Jean Nutley
2 years ago

Could it have been when the French refused to buy British lamb?
I refused to buy French anything then, and being of farming stock, I backed British farmers. Still don’t buy French, if there is a choice.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Jean Nutley

I think it was something else entirely
 something much bigger. It was probably the yellow bellied variety of affront. No matter, we had our fun!

SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
2 years ago

What an idiotic decision the ‘Anglo-sphere’ made after 1945 by allowing France to develop Nuclear Weapons. They should have been permanently ‘ emasculated’ as happened to their cousins, the naughty Germans.
Failure to do so has allowed France to strut around Europe like some demented Bantam Cockerel, forever seeking “ glory”, despite two further humiliating defeats in Indo-China & Algeria, and the embarrassing fiasco of the sinking of the Greenpeace Warrior in New Zealand, some years ago.
“Vive la France”!

ÎœÎ±ÏÎłÎ±ÏÎŻÏ„Î± Î€ÎŹÎœÏ„ÏƒÎ·
ÎœÎ±ÏÎłÎ±ÏÎŻÏ„Î± Î€ÎŹÎœÏ„ÏƒÎ·
2 years ago

What is the alternative to Eurocentrism when a single Russian whim over energy can bring Europe to its knees? No state is strong enough to deal with the new global realities.

Franz Von Peppercorn
Franz Von Peppercorn
2 years ago

A Europe of nations – a military, free trade and immigration alliance. To be honest it might have included Russia if things hadn’t worked out as they did.

ÎœÎ±ÏÎłÎ±ÏÎŻÏ„Î± Î€ÎŹÎœÏ„ÏƒÎ·
ÎœÎ±ÏÎłÎ±ÏÎŻÏ„Î± Î€ÎŹÎœÏ„ÏƒÎ·
2 years ago

We are on the same page then. But this is described as eurocentrism by many.

William Shaw
William Shaw
2 years ago

Once in the Eurozone, always in the Eurozone.
The Eurozone is an economic prison
 always the intent.
What’s amazing is how blindly countries joined.

Last edited 2 years ago by William Shaw
Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

I was reminded of this piece I read at the beginning of the pandemic about the French elite and hydroxychloroquine: What’s going on in the fifth largest economy in the world arguably points to a major collusion scandal in which the French government is helping Big Pharma to profit from the expansion of Covid-19. Informed French citizens are absolutely furious about it.
My initial question to a serious, unimpeachable Paris source, jurist Valerie Bugault, was about the liaisons dangereuses between Macronism and Big Pharma and especially about the mysterious “disappearance” – more likely outright theft – of all the stocks of chloroquine in possession of the French government.”
What made this ring true at the time was chloroquine’s disappearance from many shelves in South Africa – a country which carries huge stocks because the North Eastern part is malaria country.
Where did it go and exactly who was taking it?
https://asiatimes.com/2020/03/why-france-is-hiding-a-cheap-and-tested-virus-cure/

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
2 years ago

France must rue the day that by legally forcing land inheritance to be split between siblings, it destroyed its landed estates and farming and land value.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

It will get forever and ever smaller


Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
2 years ago

Napoleonic code wasnt it, still exists wherever Napoleon ruled

Jean Nutley
Jean Nutley
2 years ago

“Condition for staying friends”. Hmmm. Sounds more like blackmail to me, as true friends do not impose conditions.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago

If the Russians do invade Ukraine, it is somewhat intriguing that it’ll be during Macron’s presidency of the EU Council.
So he’ll have to respond – what could that response be to avoid the EU looking chicken?
‘Ukraine is a faraway place of no importance to us?’ Tell that to the millions of Ukrainian refugees who’ll flood Europe.
‘The security concerns of Russia must be respected?’ The Eastern European EU countries will feel really secure after that – it could lead to them splitting off from the EU.
’We shall build an EU military?’ Too late.

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

2 million refugees have already left Ukraine: 1 million to Poland, and 1 million to Russia. Both fled to the nearest country, because that is what refugees do.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago

“Marine Le Pen crashed in the last presidential campaign when she could not explain how to get out of the eurozone, which is the crucial issue.”
Ay, there’s the rub

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
2 years ago

The only way out of the eurozone is if it collapses/gets wound up by mutual agreement.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Till death do us part

Bill W
Bill W
2 years ago

It doesn’t really matter what a low opinion the French governing class have of Britain, when the reality is in 70 odd years Germany attacked France three times and smashed it
twice if not three times.

Last edited 2 years ago by Bill W
Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
2 years ago

It’s a unique solidarity, indeed, that threatens to strip millions of French nationals of their citizenship, and dehumanises and denigrate them on a daily basis, simply for asserting their basic human right to bodily autonomy and freedom of conscience. Macron is the worst example of a narcissistic tyrannical bully of a leader uttering lacking in humility, convinced of his own superiority of intellect and morality, an extremist, delusionist psychopath wrapped up in mendacious, fake centrism.

The bigger they are, the harder they fall; Macron has the wrath of the French coming whether he wins the election or not. They don’t tolerate tyrants for long.

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew Horsman
Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
2 years ago

But the French, whatever their misgivings about the EU, are more resigned to it”.
Yes. I quote a very good French friend of mine: “De Gaulle was absolutely right when he said that Britain should never be let into the EU. His mistake was thinking that we should be in it”.

Matt M
Matt M
2 years ago

Pulling away from the “Anglo-Saxons”, emphasising the special relationship with Germany, flirting with Russia, influencing Africa.

I would say we are, correctly, adopting the mirror image strategy. Pulling away from the continentals, emphasising the special relationship with the Anglosphere (AUKUS, OZ FTA, NZ FTA, new Canada FTA, possible US FTA), flirting with the Asian democracies (CPTPP, Japan FTA, negotiations for India FTA), influencing the Commonwealth.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt M

Oh how I wish we’d stuck with developing links with the commonwealth countries instead of joining the EU. By now we’d have borderless arrangements with Canada, Australia, NZ, the Caribbean; and we could have had more influence over the development of South Africa, Pakistan, India and maybe helped them avoid the extremist roads they’ve gone down.

Matt M
Matt M
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

I agree Ian. But it is something we can work towards now. I like the CANZUK proposal – free trade, free movement and intergovernmental cooperation between Canada, Oz, NZ and UK. We should deepen ties more broadly with the commonwealth as well.

George Knight
George Knight
2 years ago

I think ABBA summed up Macron rather well in one of their songs:
“I have a dream, a song to sing
To help me cope, with anything
If you see the wonder, of a fairy tale
You can take the future, even if you fail”

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
2 years ago

France via the EEC/EU is trying to recreate The Empire of Charlemagne.At it’s peak The Empire ot extened tp Tortosa In Spain, Monte Cassino in Italy , parts of Croatia, Austria, Czech Republic, West Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland, Beglium, France excluding Brittany. The islands of Britain were never part of the Frankish Holy Roman Empire.Consequently, none of the Kingdoms within the islands of Britain ever adopted from Rome the concept of Divine Right of Kings. The French President appears to have adopted the concept The Divine Right of Kings, the courtiers now being the graduates of the Grandes Ecoles who often come from about 14 Lycees. It would be interesting if France’s courtiers come from a smaller number of Lycees than from Britain’s leading public and grammar schools.
The question which needs to be asked, are the French civil servants more competent than the British ones? I suggest when it come to technical issues, the French civil servants are more competent than the British ones.

Malcolm Knott
Malcolm Knott
2 years ago

Macron is not immortal and in the fullness of time he will be gone.

Jean Nutley
Jean Nutley
2 years ago
Reply to  Malcolm Knott

But will the damage he inflicts be gone with him?

Dugan E
Dugan E
2 years ago

Friendship with British people?? I almost choked on my Chilean Cabernet.

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
2 years ago

I read last year that Macron was going to abolish the Science Po, etc. Did it not happen?

Hugh Marcus
Hugh Marcus
2 years ago

This could be re-titled The rants of a Brexiter.
It’s the typical stuff of a little Englander, ‘the French people really want to leave the EU, but the elite are keeping them in’.
There’s probably no more euro centric nation in the EU than France.
This is up there with the ramblings of Nigel Farage when he went to Ireland to talk about them leaving the EU just after an opinion poll put support for EU membership at 94%.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  Hugh Marcus

When it comes to France, I am inclined to believe Prof. Tombs, who is Emeritus Professor of French History at Cambridge; this is his area of expertise and he has written extensively about France. Prof. Tombs has never been known to rant, he is a serious and balanced scholar, and should never be compared with Mr. Farage.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
2 years ago
Reply to  Hugh Marcus

I’m not sure I would dismiss this as the rant of a little Englander.
From what I know of the French political class, much of what Tombs writes rings true to me.
I should add that I find Macron thoroughly repugnant, and a great disappointment. Not because seeks to embrace the role of Europe’s Stateman, but because he does so so badly. The Gilets Jaunes fiasco was born of arrogance and hubris, it has done great damage to social consensus around key issues of national importance. That was Macron’s fault.
His hardlining on covid, so clearly a sop to the globalist agenda and New York Times articles he hopes to read about himself, has done irrepairable damage, mostly to young migrants who already suffer from a lack of equality of opportunity. Worse, the hygiene theatre of covidism has bled to other countries, and given us the covid passports, which I believe will remain as Macron’s most shameful legacy.
It is to England’s credit that they have managed to avoid the worst excesses of covid hysteria and the social divisiveness of blind Net Zero policies. A true European Statesman would have the grandeur of spirit to see this.

Sue Whorton
Sue Whorton
2 years ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

When confronted with opposition he attends to bully. His lockdown dinner parties were held in contempt of the rest of his citizens by far exceeding the 6 person rule and also personally giving them Covid. His anti AZ rhetoric will have a legacy longer than Covid as it is designed as a vector for a malaria vaccine and for Ebola outbreaks. He has rarely spoken from his Olympian height about Covid but he is obviously not aware of how hard it is to book a vaccine slot in parts of rural France with pitiful internet coverage, hence how many elderly still not vaccinated. The pharmacies have done their best but a system that relies on answering a phone all to get one of the 20 or so doses doesn’t help deaf nonagenarians .

Matt M
Matt M
2 years ago
Reply to  Hugh Marcus

Why do strident pro-EU types always miss out one E in Brexiteer? Is “Brexiter” some kind of insult that I don’t understand?

Andrew D
Andrew D
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt M

No, they think that Brexiteer sounds gallant and swashbuckling, like pioneer or musketeer, and that won’t do

Matt M
Matt M
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew D

Ah! Understood.

anna.draycott
anna.draycott
2 years ago
Reply to  Hugh Marcus

M. Macron himself has said that, given a referedum, the French would vote to leave the EU.