What is France to make of Europe?

The French are having an identity crisis. At stake is the nation's role in a changing world, argues Robert Tombs
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The Independent Online
After years of somnolent complacency, the French are thinking hard about the future of Europe. They have long been remarkably consistent in their support for the concept. But what Europe do they want: one that will aid communication with the outside world, or one that will try to keep that world at bay?

The country's market-oriented politicians, administrators and businessmen welcome what they see as a mildly Thatcherite Europe that will force France into budget cuts and labour-market flexibility. But they are a small minority. Most politicians and ordinary citizens want Europe to protect French workers and businesses from the "unfair" rigours of the world market. For them, economic globalisation is the law of the jungle (in the words of Edouard Balladur, the Catholic and conservative former prime minister). Many see it as a threat to social stability and a betrayal of republican values. This is what sparked off the explosion of discontent over Christmas as the whole country realised, perhaps for the first time, that "Europe" was not the solution to its difficulties.

The French share with the British a sentiment of decline from past glories. Perhaps more than in Britain, society is seen as fragile and culture as threatened. The common reflex is to demand "protection", building mental Maginot lines, and "Europe" was until recently seen as one of the bastions of these defences. Francois Mitterrand promised that it would keep out terrorists, drug dealers, illegal immigrants and other modern horrors. But suddenly Europe seems instead to be the breach in the defences, through which globalisation is pouring in.

And yet Euro-scepticism is a very small voice in France. This seems paradoxical. As one of the oldest nation-states, and perhaps the most culturally homogeneous of the large European nations, the French have a strong sense of historical uniqueness. The republican tradition emphasises conquest of power by the people. Incursions by Brussels, the "democratic deficit" and dilution of national sovereignty might be expected to produce an instinctive reaction as hostile as in Britain or Denmark.

But not so. One reason may be that European integration has long been a more familiar concept than it is in our Atlantic archipelago or the Scandinavian fringe. "Napoleon would have voted Yes to Maastricht", proclaimed one poster in 1992, and ever since Napoleon the concept has had currency. Early in the 19th century, republican and socialist pioneers dreamed of a "Universal Republic". In the 1860s, integration was advocated both by Napoleon III and his arch-enemy Victor Hugo. In 1930 Aristide Briand, statesman and Nobel peace-prize winner, proposed a United States of Europe. Similarly, after the Second World War politicians on both left and right considered unity the salvation of a continent ravaged by national conflict, economically devastated and threatened by Communist takeover.

Inevitably it was assumed that France would be Europe's political head and cultural heart. This was plausible; the Continent was used to drawing upon France for models: the republican form of government, the metric system, law, administration, even driving on the right. France was not planning to sacrifice independence but to gain power, prestige and security.

How were the other nations to fit into this vision? The smaller states could be assumed to follow France's lead. Italy was politically too feeble to be a clear rival. As for Britain, it has never been quite sure whether it fitted in at all. But it was Germany, above all, that had to be integrated into a European system before it recovered its full power, independence and confidence. "We have to walk with Germany every hour of every day," said de Gaulle.

For more than a century, French policy has swung between trying to keep Germany divided and hemmed in with alliances or, if that failed, overwhelming it with friendship. The French respect and envy the Germans; they do not love them. But this coolness has not been a barrier to European partnership: on the contrary, it is a powerful incentive. For it is imperative neither to risk the enmity of Germany nor to fall into its dependence.

Consequently, as the gilt has worn off the European gingerbread, emphasis on the special relationship with Germany has replaced appeals to European solidarity. Jacques Chirac and the government would like to fix the franc to the mark as soon as possible, irrespective of the Maastricht process and the wishes or interests of their other partners. Significantly, Philippe Seguin, the leading Gaullist Euro-sceptic and possibly prime-minister- in-waiting, has reacted to the crisis of confidence over the single currency by calling for a closer political partnership with Germany. Clearly, when placed under stress, French devotion to Europe boils down to its essential ingredient: the link with Germany.

This link, however, has recently shown signs of fraying at the German end. German politicians and bankers have ignored requests from no less than Valery Giscard d'Estaing and Jacques Delors that the Maastricht criteria should be interpreted flexibly. Alain Juppe was forced in January into an undignified scramble to get into step with the Germans: what the French were keen to announce as a joint strategy to boost economic growth, the Germans brushed off as merely the coincidental announcement of uncoordinated measures. The French desire to marry the franc to the mark seems to have been firmly turned down when Juppe saw Helmut Kohl on 12 February. A chorus of senior French voices calling for a more political approach to a single currency - code for governmental control over the future European Central Bank - flies in the face of German insistence that the euro must be as inflation-proof as the mark. Here, indeed, is the crux of the matter: how would monetary policy under a single currency be controlled, and in whose interests?

While Chirac and Juppe protest stoutly that France will stick to the Maastricht programme, their economic predictions look increasingly chimerical. Any admission of doubt, however, could lead the money markets to blow the franc away - a powerful argument for talking tough. Besides, they are determined that France should not be the first to ask for a relaxation of convergence criteria, while praying that someone else will ask for them.

If Kohl insists on forging ahead, it is hard to see what becomes of the "European" structure that was intended to guarantee economic security, restrain German power and provide a platform for France's world ambitions. While the official French line on Europe is "full speed ahead, damn the torpedoes", they have been making momentous and sudden changes in other areas.

The central dogmas of French defence and foreign policy for 30 years have been jettisoned. France has rejoined Nato's military command structure. Chirac has publicly recognised America's indispensability to Europe's security. The independent nuclear deterrent, strategically obsolete, is being rethought, with important approaches to the US and Britain. Now there are plans to disband half the conscript army and create a professional force on the British model.

Technological difficulties and the need to reduce costs are certainly part of the explanation. But it may also be that the French do not wish to become too tied to the Paris-Bonn axis, in which they have visibly become the junior partner; nor too dependent for their world role on the shaky foundations of a Europe whose impotence has been wretchedly demonstrated in the Balkans and the Aegean. We may thus be seeing a subtle version of the traditional balance-of-power strategy with Germany, of course, the power being balanced.

As President Georges Pompidou neatly put it, "France is condemned by her geography and history to play the European card." She will play it for all it is worth: as Germany's co-partner inside Europe; as leader, with Britain, of European defence; as America's partner in Nato. Thus, the coming European intergovernmental conference may see France being everybody's friend, the go-between with a finger in every pie, and hence still hoping to shape European development into the next century.

The writer is director of studies in history at St John's College, Cambridge