The fall of France
Pierre Moscovici



French influence in Europe is declining, and President Jacques Chirac is largely to blame. He made the right choice before the Iraq war — America’s intervention was never justified and has yielded a terrible failure — and so found himself in sync with an emerging European, even global, opposition to the Bush administration. But he has failed to transform his position into one of ongoing leadership.

Chirac’s stature and experience should have allowed him to rally all of Europe before, during or after the crisis. But he never sought such a role. Faced with American unilateralism, he failed to promote realistic multilateral solutions. On the contrary, despite being right about Iraq, Chirac became isolated, an isolation that grew because he also failed to re-establish satisfactory relations with President Bush. Indeed, under Chirac, France appears increasingly arrogant, a nation convinced of the righteousness of its views and the universality of its model — the very charges so often levelled against George W Bush’s America.

Chirac compounded his errors over Iraq in his approach to the new European Commission. On the old commission headed by Romano Prodi, France was powerfully represented, with Pascal Lamy holding the trade portfolio. Lamy is widely acknowledged for his skill, his intellect, and his strong personality. Maintaining France’s weight within the European Union should have led Chirac to re-confirm Lamy when José Manuel Barroso took over as President of the Commission.

But, in Chirac’s eyes, Lamy possessed two fatal flaws: he is a socialist, and he favours reform of the Common Agricultural Policy. Chirac, Georges Pompidou’s agriculture minister in the 1970s, wants to keep the CAP as it is. So Chirac replaced Lamy with Jacques Barrot, an honourable and experienced politician, but one with little knowledge of EU affairs and no language other than French.

No surprise, then, that Barrot was given a minor role on a new European Commission that is liberal and Atlanticist, quite out of sync with French positions. Barrot received the transportation portfolio, a minor post far below the type of position — competition or domestic affairs — that Chirac demanded. True, Barroso offered Barrot the symbolic title of commission vice-president, but this is a mere consolation prize that doesn’t fool anyone.

Chirac’s very character works against French influence in Europe. He seems to belong to an era when France considered Europe a “French formal garden”. He is nostalgic for the 1960s and the Gaullist ideology that shaped both France and himself.

These biases matter because they do not jibe with the enlarged Europe of today. France was a core part of Europe when the Union had only six members and reflected the primary goal of Franco-German reconciliation. The fall of the Berlin Wall changed all that. Of course, the French vision still plays a major part in today’s Europe of 25 members; our “exceptionality” — be it cultural or political — remains important, even if it is less well regarded. But French ideas are not necessarily central to a Europe no longer driven by the Franco-German engine.

Given this change in European dynamics, France should have looked for new ways to assert influence. Instead, Chirac demeaned and sometimes humiliated his European partners, gradually rallying everyone against him. No one should be surprised that so contemptuous a French attitude, one utterly disdainful of the Union’s Solidarity Pact and competition regulations, provoked a reaction detrimental to France
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That contempt is also manifested in France’s nominees to serve on the Commission. Unlike, for example, Great Britain, France rarely nominates young and talented persons capable of shaping the EU’s future.

Of course, this decline must not be overestimated. France remains a major European country: it is a founder of the Union, one of the world’s richest nations, and holds a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. It defends, with its nuclear power, an autonomous and important foreign and defence policy. France represents values, a culture, and a history that grant it a durable global audience. It matters and will continue to matter in the European Council and the European Parliament.

Moreover, France needs to avoid the temptation to overcompensate for the diminishing role of the Franco-German tandem, which may no longer be sufficient to power the Union, but nonetheless remains necessary. In this respect, the composition of the Barroso Commission worries me: the role given to my friend, the German Social Democrat Günter Verheugen, is no more enviable than that given to Barrot. A Commission that keeps France and Germany at bay and entrusts its major posts to representatives of “small countries,” to more liberal actors, and partisans of the American intervention in Iraq, will not be successful. This is why I cannot trust such a Commission.

France will also have to reform its European strategy if it is to regain influence. I wish France could adopt a more humble attitude, show more respect for its partners and the EU’s institutions, and view Europe as more than an extension of its own philosophy. Here I have no confidence in Jacques Chirac. Thankfully, his reign won’t last forever.

The decline of French influence in Europe is undeniable, but it is neither fatal nor desirable. It must be stopped. But this won’t be achieved by invoking past glory. For the rising generation of French political leaders, the essential task is to spur France to lead a reunited Europe by working within it.
—DT-PS

Pierre Moscovici is a former European Affairs minister for France and the current Vice-President of the European Parliament