Europe, not good enough for the French

The French parliament is set to vote on the Fiscal Compact on Tuesday 9 October. But the new proposals Paris has made to reform the European Union are further evidence of the complacency and provincialism of the country’s pampered political class, writes a French journalist.

Published on 8 October 2012 at 11:08
European summit: “This time, no dessert.”

There has already been one casualty in the debate on the Fiscal Compact: France’s reputation as a European strategist. No one in Europe can have any further doubts: France has no “grand design” or “secret plan” that could set down the foundations for a European political and institutional “new deal” that would reconcile the social market economy with the constraints of Darwinian globalisation.

The need for such a deal is critical, especially in the context of the solutions adopted over the last four years, which have strained the existing architecture almost to breaking point, and have ridden roughshod over democratic principles. Of course, as the Prime Minister announced, France will “submit proposals” in the run-up to the European Council summit on 17 and 18 October, which will probably be the first in a long series of meetings devoted to the reform of the union. But we can already imagine that in their bid to satisfy a wide range of sensibilities these proposals will be extremely prudent and radically pragmatic. We can therefore fear that they will be out of place in the debate already launched in Brussels and Berlin.

For weeks, European Council President Herman van Rompuy has been refining his idea of a “Eurozone budget”. The principle of modifying union treaties has to all intents and purposes been accepted, if only to include the 500 billion euro European Stability Mechanism, which is expected to come into force in 2013. The German government has already announced that it is willing to organise a referendum in the federal republic in the event that proposed changes might affect its sacrosanct constitution. So what is behind the spineless approach adopted by Paris? There are all sorts of political reasons as well as a wide range of legitimate reservations that focus on the liberal DNA of the European Commission or even on the principle of supranational union, which is a debate as old as the European community itself.

Sacrifice of national comfort

But allow me to add a further hypothesis to this list. Is the vanishing voice of France not also due to a mixture of laziness, provincialism, pride and complacency? In short, is the paralysis of a large part of the French political elite in response to developments in Europe not also motivated by some very bad reasons? Reasons that can conveniently be summarised by that mix of irony and envy in the German expression: “As happy as God in France!”

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Our political leaders behave like gods who are so reluctant to quit their Parisian Olympus that every last one of them will desert the benches of the European parliament whenever there is a general election in France. It is so much nicer to wander over to Invalides for lunch atChez Françoise [a Parisian restaurant popular with politicians] than to sit down in a bobo greasy spoon in the Place de Luxembourg in Brussels or — worse still — at the MEP restaurant, which, apart from the white tablecloths and waiter service, is indistinguishable from the parliament staff canteen.

Why stray from the well-signposted territory of French debates where everyone has his place: sovereigntist, left- or right-wing Gaullist, eurosceptic socialist etc? Why brave the winds of European competition and face the strangeness of Scandinavian socialist liberalism or legalistic Germans, when you can remain within a known ideological framework? Why force yourself to communicate in that strange idiom that is Brussels English when you speak the most beautiful language in the world? Why, in short, would you bother with Europe when you are perfectly fine on your own turf?

Unfortunately, the drive to make the European Union an instrument for ”solidarity oriented integration”, as wished for by President Hollande, will inevitably require the sacrifice of a certain measure of national comfort. That does not mean that politics will have to be denationalised, but rather that national politics will have to be integrated into debate and reflection on paradigms proposed by other Europeans if we are to succeed in achieving the level of fertile historic compromise that gave us the single market and the euro.

Paris is simply not ready

Academics and company directors have already learned how to handle the vicissitudes and constraints — and also the opportunities – offered by a more international and more anglophone world where borders are vanishing. Even assembly line workers have been instructed to “please bear in mind the Chinese competition”. However, the political elite remains profoundly national — if not nationalist — in its outlook. Of course, Belgium has its Flemish nationalists who dream of living in a monolingual country where you have to pass a language test if you want to buy land. But are we really obliged to participate in this home-cooked barbecue mentality?

The spectacle of internecine conflict on the left is first and foremost a testament to the disarray prompted by the strange entity of the European Union. It is also confirmation of the bitter observation voiced by the former president of the French Mouvement Européen, Sylvie Goulard, today an MEP, who wrote in 2007: “In recent years, the idea that ‘Europe’ should mean a solidarity oriented community has been set aside.”

Set aside, because it is no longer current thinking, and in politics reflection and action go hand in hand. Under the last government and under the current one, the crisis has demonstrated that Paris is simply not ready. Here the comparison with Germany, which, having pushed for a wide-ranging debate on the goals of the union since 2009, is now openly demanding and preparing for an EU convention, is once again cruelly telling. The mechanics of the crisis have resulted in a situation that the construction of Europe scrupulously aimed to avoid: it has placed Germany at the centre of the European game, in an objectively dominant position. For those living on Olympus, this perspective can perhaps be viewed with serenity. The same cannot be said for us ordinary mortals.

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