Three great paradoxes shape France's European policy today. The first arises from the policy preferences of the French people. The second derives from their Constitution. The third follows from the surprising perception the French elite has of the nature of the country itself. Together, they make France a difficult read for fellow Europeans at a time when this nation of northern beer and southern wine, of democratic radicalism and monarchical splendour, of Jean Monnet and Charles de Gaulle, is the actor whose willingness to conclude a big bargain with Germany could again be a pivot of European history.
The first paradox results from the added preferences of 43 million French voters. The French, having very nearly junked the Maastricht Treaty launching monetary union in a referendum in 1992, stepped up their resistance and sunk the EU's Constitutional Treaty in 2005. Yet while public opposition against the Maastricht Treaty was led by British-style "souverainistes" rejecting further European integration as such, the heated debate in 2005 saw a far more differentiated opposition emerge.
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"Souverainisme" continued to fuel the resistance of the far and hard right. But many left wing, younger, and better educated voters responded to a different charge: they saw the 2005 Treaty as enshrining a neoliberal policy rulebook favouring bad competition over sensible regulation, threatening the French way of life. What Europe needed was not the neoliberal Quasi-Constitution on offer but a better Treaty with new rules on social and labour rights, essentially exporting the French welfare model to the continent.
A majority of the French clearly place far greater emphasis on social justice than do many of their neighbours (in the most recent Eurobarometer poll, France ranked second amongst EU citizens in their emphasis on social justice). Equally, the French radically disbelieve the market's ability to deliver it, as the dismal failure of all attempts to launch a Liberal Party in France makes clear.
The eurozone crisis has offered evidence that the French preference for a strong state role to counterbalance market forces now extends to collective state action at eurozone level, even when this comes at a cost to the French treasury. Although it is the second biggest guarantor of eurozone solidarity, France has eschewed the vicious argument that has raged in Germany and elsewhere over the legitimacy of helping less provident European partners. Many French were shocked by the tenor of the German debate, and help for Greece, Spain, or Portugal has been portrayed as a fair and necessary course of action in TV debates and opinion pages.
Despite bringing down the Constitutional Treaty in 2005 (a major blow to integration dynamics within the EU), the French today accept the principle of intra-European financial "solidarity" far more easily than, for instance, their German neighbours. With 46 percent of French voters still having endorsed the Constitutional Treaty in 2005, further European integration could conceivably once again win French majority backing if it better reflected French preferences regarding the relationship between state and market (a broad consensus across much of the continent that the 2008 crisis had its roots in neoliberal deregulatory excess is likely to make it easier for future French treaty negotiators to win the political argument in Europe).
A second great French paradox on Europe flows from the Constitution and more specifically from the written and unwritten powers wielded by the president. "This is a place where the raising of a presidential eyebrow has more significance than any ministerial speech", a German ambassador in Paris told the author. To an extent that never fails to astound foreign observers, the French president can run most European and foreign policy essentially as he pleases. The one major constitutional exception, the cohabitation scenario whereby the president has to govern with a hostile political majority in the Assemblée Nationale and where the prime minister doubles as his chief political adversary, has become much less likely to occur since the cutting of the presidential term from seven to five years. "Please understand that I am much less powerful than you", Germany's chancellor Angela Merkel once told the former President Sarkozy, pointing to the numerous centres of executive, legislative, and judicial authority that constantly challenge and sometimes curtail her ability to act.
Thomas Klau is Head of the Paris office and Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
As part of the 'Reinventing Europe' project, ECFR is publishing a series of papers on the national debates within EU member states over the crisis and the future direction of Europe.