“The impression of narrow-mindedness… prompted a great part of public opinion to turn to a spectre. This spectre was born in Geneva, and against the sterility of the French political landscape, it bore resemblance to hope. Its name was Europe.” So wrote French thinker Jean-Pierre Maxence before the Second World War. Today, it is enough to replace “Geneva” with “Brussels” for his diagnosis to neatly match the mindset of contemporary French elites, and the ideological malaise which has captured them.
Europe, Maxence argued, was a myth “that was worshipped all the more strongly the more distant it seemed”. At that time, it was associated with Aristide Briand, who led five French governments after the First World War. A “United States of Europe”, according to this “Briandist” vision, represented an imminent future that would relegate conflict between nations to the past. Today, this vision is the political alibi most eagerly used by Emmanuel Macron.
Macron’s neo-Briandism is based, above all, on the belief in “couple franco-allemand”. But lately, relations between France and Germany have fallen into a crisis. The annual government consultations between the two countries, scheduled for the end of October, have been postponed until January next year. Yesterday, Germany foreign minister Annalena Baerbock travelled to Paris to try and recover the situation, holding meetings with her French counterpart and, unusually, Macron himself. But whatever their outcome, she will be unable to rescue a relationship which has always been defined by French foreign policy delusions.
Central to their discussions was defence co-operation — a key part of the neo-Briandist dream of “strategic autonomy” — on which a rift has opened between France and Germany. In March, under the auspices of the French presidency, EU heads of state signed a declaration in Versailles pledging increased investment in European defence. A stark rebuttal of this French vision came with Germany’s decision to buy F-35 fighter jets from the US, though there are signs of cooperation over the development of the new FCAS fighter jet system. Meanwhile, the project of a European anti-missile shield, put forward by Scholz, also disregarded the work of the French aerospace company Thales and its Italian partners on the existing Mamba anti-missile system. But perhaps the greatest injury was caused by the German proposal for “harmonisation of arms exports within the EU”, which would have meant a ban on sales to non-EU and non-Nato countries, depriving the French of important customers.
China is the other issue fracturing the Franco-German couple, symbolised by Scholz’s visit to Beijing earlier this month. He went in defiance of Paris, which not only intended it to be a joint trip, but also wanted it to take place later so as not to grant legitimacy to Xi right after his propagandising Party Congress. Scholz’s actions here should not come as a surprise. He embraces the vision of German businessmen, who believe that Germany needs China, rather than strategic autonomy. In the very first phone conversation between Scholz and Xi, they agreed that economic relations between the two countries must deepen. This direction in Berlin’s policy was further confirmed by the recent sale of shares in the port of Hamburg to the Chinese.
But perhaps nothing has undermined the myth of the “Franco-German couple” more than Scholz’s rescue plan for German industry. Its scale — €200 billion — has frightened the French and other European leaders, who fear it will further compound Germany’s industrial advantage. Paris’s anxiety stems from the fact that it does not have the resources to respond to Germany’s neo-mercantilist challenge. A source close to Macron stated bluntly: “they want to crush us”. Liberal philosopher Pierre Manent noted immediately after Macron’s election in 2017 that the French “want to marry the Germans”, and called this desire “strange”. If this behaviour continues, he presciently warned, France would risk complete economic, political and intellectual vassalisation. But the French subordination to Germany did not begin with Macron — it is one of the prevailing narratives of modern French history.
A key step towards this vassalisation was the adoption of the euro. The terms France agreed to amounted to a gift to Germany, so determined was François Mitterand to draw Germany into an integrated Europe, whatever the cost. Oskar Lafontaine, one of the SPD’s leaders, admitted years later that the euro was a system that favoured his country’s economic power, as German-exported goods would have been much more expensive without the common currency. French elites believed that the monetary union would provide a magical incentive for structural reforms and saw the euro just as the Italians did: a vincolo esterno, an external constraint forcing them to adapt. They did not anticipate that the only thing they would have to adapt to would be Berlin’s demands.
France’s position vis-à-vis Germany worsened further in 1997, when Paris introduced a 35-hour working week. The then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder described it as “excellent news for German industry” and, beginning with the Schröder era, German unilateralism and neo-mercantilism became explicit. A period of fait accomplis was inaugurated by the Hartz reforms, which Schröder did not discuss with European partners. Imposed soon after the introduction of the single currency, they tipped the scales of the eurozone permanently in favour of Berlin (although some do question their importance).
Again, in 2011, Merkel did not talk to her counterparts when she decided to abandon nuclear power, which “destabilised the French nuclear industry”, as pro-nuclear campaigners have put it. But the most striking example of Berlin’s unilateralism came in 2015, when Merkel single-handedly decided that Europe should open its borders to an unprecedented influx of migrants. Despite this, Macron remained a firm believer in the myth of the “couple franco-allemand”. During his first campaign, he promised reforms to restore trust with Germany, and travelled to Berlin on his first visit after assuming office. In 2018, during his speeches at the Sorbonne and in Athens, he went so far as to propose that the “couple” transform the EU into a tighter federation. Merkel, however, showed no enthusiasm for these ideas, never substantially addressing them.
In an interview with The Economist in the autumn of 2019, the French president restated his position, arguing that Nato was in a state of “brain death” and that the EU’s task should be to regain “strategic autonomy”. And more recently speaking to Les Échos, Macron repeated his credo: “I believe in the strength of the couple franco-allemand and in our ability to implement an ambitious strategy.”
But Macron’s true attitude toward sovereignty is historically ambiguous, and undermines any of the grand gestures he makes. In 2010, when he sat on the Commission for the Liberation of French Growth set up by then-President Sarkozy, he proposed getting rid of France’s nuclear deterrent. “It serves no purpose. Germany doesn’t have it,” said Macron according to Marc Endeweld’s book, L’Emprise. And while today Macron considers reindustrialisation as inherent to strategic autonomy, over the years he has been an important actor in the deindustrialisation of France.
He is not the only culprit here, and this process began long before him, during the economic shocks of the Seventies. But it accelerated from 1995 to 2015, driven both by neoliberal politics and the myth of Europe. A case in point is Pechiney, world leader in the transformation of bauxite into aluminium. In 2000, as Nicolas Dufourcq explains in La Désindustrialisation de la France, it was strong enough to wrest control of its market through consolidations. However, the European Commission blocked these attempts and thereafter Pechiney went into decline.
A lack of assertiveness to protect Pechiney was accompanied by a particular intellectual climate among French elites. They had allowed themselves to be captivated by the ideology of “fabless”, whose main propagator in France was Serge Tchuruk, then CEO of Alstom. He argued that the days of industrial manufacturing were over, and claimed that a new age of post-industrial economy and society without factories was beginning, with companies only involved in design and production outsourced. Dufourcq, himself an entrepreneur and currently the director of the Banque Publique d’Investissement, argues that this had a deplorable effect: by the Noughties, Parisian elites were clueless about real industrial strategy.
This is Macron’s intellectual background. And he has followed its example: when he held the office of finance minister, Alstom was sold, the phone company Alcatel was bought by Nokia, Technip (an engineering and construction company in the energy sector) ended up in the hands of the American FMC, and Lafarge, specialising in building materials, became the property of the Swiss Holcim.
The fate of Alstom is emblematic. It was one of the most important French conglomerates, the main contributor to France’s post-war reconstruction, whose extensive operations — from railroads to nuclear — can only be compared with Germany’s Siemens or the South Korean chaebols. Even before Macron was appointed finance minister, he piloted the Alstom case from his position as secretary to President Hollande. Back then, he commissioned an analysis from the US consulting firm AT Kearney, whose recommendation was to sell Alstom to General Electric. When minister Arnaud Montebourg tried to voice his opposition and proposed a partial nationalisation of strategic assets, Macron reportedly countered: “We are not in Venezuela!”
In 2021, in an act of contrition, he announced the repurchase of a portion of Alstom. The price the French will come to pay will be higher than what they sold it for. And this brings to mind Jean-Pierre Maxence’s other remark about Briand. He was praised, the French writer notes, for being capable, “but his ability consisted primarily in feigning victory whenever he suffered defeat”.
Macron’s neo-Briandist delusions obscure his underlying powerlessness. In 2018, IFOP conducted a multiple-choice survey asking who holds power in France. Remarkably, 54% of respondents pointed to the “financial markets”, while 49% chose “multinational corporations” and “the president” equally. The French public senses that the office of the president, despite the immense prerogatives with which the institutional framework of the Fifth Republic endows him, no longer commands the destiny of the country.
Contrarian sociologist Emmanuel Todd argues in his Les Luttes des classes en France au XXIe siècle that France has entered “a fascinating and fictional era”, which he calls “La Grande Comédie”. It has as much to do with real politics as The Phoney War had to do with real war. The main task of the French political system has become to organise fictions concealing the fact that the President has lost his influence over the course of national affairs. Judging by Macron’s recent statements about the Franco-German couple and Europe, the great comedy will only continue.