Between the ineffectiveness of the EU in controlling German power and surrendering to American interests, there was a third possibility: that of an economic as well as political rapprochement with Russia. But this would require from a future president an unusual will, and consistency in execution, both of which seem to be lacking in French political life, writes Valdai Club expert Jacques Sapir.
France is now undergoing a real existential crisis in its diplomacy, while its place is significantly undervalued by American diplomats. The country believed that by integrating into a globalised world, and by trying to transform the European Union in an actual puissance, it could regain power and capacity for influence, which had largely eroded since the 1980s. But this was not to be the case. The European Union has refused so far to assume an autonomous strategic position and has turned out to be an obstacle to the expression of such a position by France. It now finds itself in a position of strategic dependence vis-à-vis the United States, a position that has been amplified by external interventions, and this while the United States, through its anti-universalist ideology, poses a direct threat to its social and cultural model.
The US, however, still takes an interest in France. It should not be forgotten that along with the United Kingdom, it is the only Western nuclear power outside the United States. It is, within the European Union, one of the very few countries to remain a significant military power. Finally, it is one of the few EU countries whose troops have real combat experience, and whose troops are quickly deployable to foreign theatres of operation. France therefore represents an important stake for American policy in Europe; some French politicians would like to believe it represents a major stake.
In order to understand current developments, we need to go back. Since 1966 France, while remaining a member of NATO, had left the integrated command. The country has also vigorously opposed American policy in Asia. However, today, France’s role is no longer what it was from the 1960s to the end of the 1980s. In those years, France played a pivotal role for European security, both in its capacity to use its own nuclear power, which made Soviet decision-makers assess additional uncertainty in the event of a conflict, and by its withdrawal from the integrated NATO command, which prevented the United States from being able to use Western Europe against the USSR. France’s policy of national independence from General de Gaulle to Georges Pompidou and Valéry Giscard d´Estaing, a policy, which began to falter with François Mitterrand, was based on observation. France was a geopolitical powerhouse just as Germany was an economic one, which flourished during the same years. It could counterbalance relative economic weakness with its geopolitical position. It is also interesting to note that the two major projects presented as “European”, Airbus and Arianne, emerged from Franco-German cooperation which was set up in the 1970s. One of the reasons for the change that occurred at the end of the 1980s was, of course, German reunification and the twilight years of the Soviet Union, which dramatically reshuffled the maps of European geopolitics.
The United States was well aware of this situation. It understood that France’s strategic autonomy and policy of “national independence” severely limited its weight in Europe and beyond. It has only wanted to domesticate France since the 1970s. We must admit that Washington has succeeded in achieving these ends. President Sarkozy’s decision to return to NATO’s integrated command in March 2009 played a key role in this regard. A repeat of President Jacques Chirac’s 2003 decision not to follow the United States in its invasion of Iraq, a decision which for a moment marked the division between a “pro-American” Europe and a Europe more concerned with its own interests, was not possible only because of the then-particular situation of France in NATO. What can be said is that France was followed by Germany, which was part of the integrated command. But, Germany could say that it was following France.
The United States was not mistaken in announcing it would “forgive” Germany but “punish” France. The boundaries established in 2003 were naturally completely upset by Nicolas Sarkozy’s decision in 2009. This decision by Nicolas Sarkozy to return France to the integrated command was taken in the name of the argument that this return would give France back the ability to influence NATO decision-making and, indirectly, the United States. This turned out to be an illusion.
France has become hostage to US foreign policy, which has turned out to be erratic and often ill-conceived. We can see it with the fall of Gaddafi. The United States used European countries, mainly France and Italy, to implement a policy relatively similar to that which it had pursued in Iraq. The events which resulted were foreseeable. The physical elimination of Gaddafi led to a situation of chaos in Libya, a situation which weighs heavily on the countries along the northern shore of the Mediterranean and which has allowed the Libyan coasts to become a starting point for an uncontrolled migratory flow, which has created a major security problem in the Mediterranean, and weighs heavily on Italy.
It is then interesting to look back and ask why France itself gave the United States what it wanted.
There was, of course, an ideological component. The combination of the collapse of the post-Gaullist consensus in France, a consensus of which President Chirac was the last defender, and fascination with American neo-conservative ideology, caused a real paradigm shift with the election of Nicolas Sarkozy and in the years that followed. But this ideological shift, important as it was, does not explain everything.
A problem rarely mentioned in public, but heavily present among the French elites, has also played a major role. This problem is the economic and political weight of Germany. This weight was reinforced by reunification, which put Germany back at the heart of Europe, when it was in a peripheral position as long as the rift between Western Europe and the Eastern Bloc subsisted. It was further leveraged by the adoption of the euro, which outrageously favoured Germany, which the current French president has half-acknowledged.
This then explains the strategic rapprochement that France undertook towards the United States under the presidency of Sarkozy. However, this rapprochement was asymmetric. The United States sensed France’s fears, but they also undoubtedly understood that it had trapped itself in a dead end. So they accepted the rapprochement but gave nothing in exchange, thus pushing France on the path towards ever-more complete vassalisation. They could do so all the more since they had strong ideological allies in France itself, both on the right and on the left of the political spectrum. They had, and will have in the future, only to ruin and place even more under their domination the industrial apparatus of France, as we saw with the Alstom affair, while they reduce the French military apparatus to an auxiliary force, as one sees it currently in Africa. Let us note that with the arrival of Biden in the White House, the ideological climate has improved in France vis-à-vis the United States, which the latter will know, one can imagine, to largely exploit.
They know they have a free hand until France finds a solution to its German problem.