For all its domestic chaos in the lead-up to the June parliamentary elections, France has reemerged as the great power of continental Europe.
The 2022 Russia-Ukraine military conflict and the prospect of further Russian military action in Moldova’s autonomous (and pro-Russian) Transdniestria region bordering Ukraine may have stirred a shared panic and fear in the EU and NATO states. But at the same time, it highlights the inherent weakness of both the European Union and the North Atlantic Alliance.
The Ukraine conflict, far from reviving traditional Western European economic and industrial strengths, has exposed the EU member states’ economic, military, and industrial shortcomings while giving other regional states—such as Turkey—the opportunity to pursue strategic initiatives against the interests of NATO and the EU.
Meanwhile, a balance of power framework—similar to the Franco-British containment of Russia in the Crimean War (1853-56)—is emerging, closer to 1850 than in the 20th century and the first two decades of the 21st century.
Pro-EU analysts hailed the victory of French President Emmanuel Macron in the presidential run-off election on April 24 as a victory for the EU and a defeat for nationalist forces within Europe. The Ukraine conflict also stirred the belief among some in the political-academic community that NATO states would become more cohesive and efficient in their defense spending and actions.
These assessments were premature and superficial.
Old concerns over Franco-German rivalry have now been revived and magnified.
If French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen (National Rally, or RN) had won the election, France would have begun to embark upon the path of loosening or abandoning its EU membership. But merely because centrist Macron (La République en Marche: LREM) won does not mean that the balance of power remains unchanged within the EU. A range of possible consequences opens.
The French presidential election showed just how much the nationalist, anti-EU sentiment had grown in France.
Madame Le Pen won 41.5 percent of the vote, indicating that almost half the French public had a relatively negative view of the EU. Macron might be able to dampen that sentiment if he were to use his second term in office to take advantage of the dramatic weakening of Germany’s economic and political power over the past few years.
Macron has no recourse but to fill the gap left by the departure of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her replacement by socialist Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
The long goodbye wave of Merkel’s retirement period, and the knowledge that a weak socialist government was to replace her, meant that a French successor as “leader of Europe” was probable.
There has been an ongoing, historical recognition of the French need to counterbalance Germany as the rival for continental dominance in Europe.
France cannot escape the reality that it needs to maintain that role and, to do so, it must remain in the EU.
Now, for the first time in decades, France is in a position to revive and modernize the Napoleonic concept of Europe de la Grande Nation in the sense of Europe as a great nation under France, ending the era of the German-controlled euro, which enabled a Europe dominated by German economic and political policy.
But would the smaller EU states welcome French domination any more than they welcomed German domination?
Such a prospect, or even a perception, of Paris, finally emerging as the “real” capital of Europe may be satisfying for many French voters. It stems from the reality that nationalism—or, instead, the rejection of a central, stifling bureaucracy—continues to gain traction throughout the EU states.
Meanwhile, Macron has little time to savor his reelection.
On June 12 and 19, 2022, he faces a general election for all 577 seats in the Assemblée Nationale, which would determine the shape of the next French administration. The outgoing parliament had a clear majority for Macron’s LREM, but the next session may well be more finely divided, and Macron may need to find a coalition arrangement to achieve the legislation he desires, even if he gets that far.
It has generally been assumed that Macron would court a parliamentary alliance between LREM and parties of the left. But the key left and right parties have each pledged to oppose Macron for different reasons.
What is significant is that Macron may find it easier to strike a case-by-case arrangement with Le Pen’s RN and the even more conservative Reconquête (R) of Eric Zemmour than with the radical left under Moroccan-born Jean-Luc Mélenchon (La France Insoumise: LFI), who has been actively campaigning for the premiership with the June elections.
In the face of that threat, Zemmour called on the nationalist blocs to unite for and after the parliamentary elections, noting: “There can be no electoral victory without an alliance among the entire right. Our coalition is not an option; it is a necessity; it is a duty.”
Indeed, while Macron has been strongly pro-EU and anti-Brexit, his stance has been far more conservative and, in a sense, “traditional” than the radical left of the old Socialist Party, the Greens, or LFI.
All this reinforces the growing tendency in the EU toward nationalism in many member states, not just Hungary, Austria, and so on, but also in Italy, Poland, and others. As long as the EU binds much of Europe into a “mutual hostage” situation, however, France cannot ignore its consistent agenda—evident for 150 years—to counterbalance Germany. Indeed, the tendency goes back even further than creating “Germany” as a modern state to the Napoleonic bid to quash the Holy Roman Empire and various German-speaking states, such as Prussia.
Appealing to the parties of the left or right is one thing for Macron when seeking a balance in the Assemblée Nationale. Still, even before the presidential election, he began promising the electorate some relief from the inflation, which has undercut purchasing power for individuals. If he could deliver a coherent program during the electioneering, he could win back some support from the left and right voters to LREM.
At the end of the day, the major battle quietly shaping up is between France and Germany for dominance on the European continent. And Germany’s recent and projected economic decline, particularly in the face of the need to compensate for the probable removal of some or all of its Russian-supplied energy, indicates that France could be in a position to assert dominance in the coming few years.
This was foreseen.
Even on July 11, 2018, then-U.S. President Donald Trump said that Germany had become “a captive of Russia” by pushing for the now-canceled Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia via the Baltic Sea to Germany and its gas reliance via other pipelines from Russia. Trump was forcefully attacked by his U.S. political opposition for that statement, which was subsequently borne out by events.
The Russia-Ukraine conflict meant that Germany was now highly exposed to energy shortages, which would undercut its economy. Temporary supplies of oil from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserves, promised by U.S. President Joe Biden, would not last long and would undermine America’s energy security unless Washington restored the ability of U.S. producers to exploit domestic reserves and draw on oil from Alberta, Canada.
In the meantime, the leftist SPD-led government of Chancellor Scholz and his Green coalition partner are ideologically opposed to Germany reopening its nuclear power plants or coal-fired power plants. These represent the only option that could rapidly compensate for the disruption to the supply of natural gas to power the economy. Ironically, it was the SPD, under then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who, in 2004, had been promoting the development of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which was to make Germany dependent on Russian energy.
Schröder (who worked closely with Scholz) took up a job as head of the shareholder committee of Nord Stream and as a member of the boards of several Russian energy companies immediately after he retired as chancellor of Germany.
The current crisis, largely focused on the German political and economic malaise, may have contributed most to the declining strength of the euro to its lowest levels in five years against the U.S. dollar and the pound sterling.
Although troubled by a number of domestic economic issues, France is nowhere near as challenged as Germany. Germany’s promise to massively increase its defense spending in the face of the Ukraine conflict may well drift into meaningless over the coming years. Then the SPD will be facing greater and more urgent demands for cash from an embattled society, and these would take precedence over increased defense spending.
Macron must mend his fences with Britain to rebuild his prestige and negotiating power. His credibility suffered because of his unsuccessful attempts to retain more than a reasonable share of the fisheries catch from British waters after the UK left the EU.
Macron now needs the UK as a strategic ally, not just to offset a potentially unstable Germany but to achieve a balance with out-of-region powers, such as the United States, Russia, and China. It seems, then, that France under the second Macron mandate, may emerge as far more nationalist than during the first Macron term, and this, ultimately, may satisfy some of the voters who had, in frustration at the Euro-drift of recent years, gone to Le Pen’s RN.
Significantly, Germany, which has relied heavily on British markets for German exports, also has a strong reason to court better relations with the UK.
The United States, which essentially triggered the polarization of Europe versus Russia in late 2021/early 2022, may not sustain its leadership of the conflict against Russia if the Biden administration is hampered by the mid-term U.S. elections in November 2022 or if—as has been suggested—Biden retires before the end of his first presidential term.
No matter what happens in the United States, the forced removal of Russia from its integrated trade position with Western Europe is unlikely to be reversed any time within the next decade, at least.
And suppose the war with Ukraine—and the West—has profoundly weakened Russia. In that case, the EU’s drift toward irrelevance has indeed been exacerbated by the conflict, with only the necessity for the EU to be retained as a safety net to contain any instability or revived nationalism in Germany.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.