The Rise of French Pro-Sovereignty Movements and their Geopolitical Consequences

Posted in Europe | 03-Jun-05 | Author: Federico Bordonaro

'No' vote supporters celebrate after France voted against the ratification of the European constitution, Paris, May 29, 2005.

After the rejection of the E.U. Constitutional Treaty in France and in the Netherlands, European elites are experiencing the worst crisis in the history of the European integration process. The present impasse looks even worse than the one of 1954, when it was once again France which -- after having been the main supporter of a European Defense Community -- buried the plan of an integrated, supranational European defense. In 1954, the deadlock resulted out of a strong unwillingness to abandon French national sovereignty both by nationalist and left-wing political parties; however, the issue was isolated to defense policy, and a solution was quickly found through Germany's reintegration into the Western security architecture -- i.e. the Western European Union and N.A.T.O -- the year after. Today, matters are far more complex. [See: "Intelligence Brief: European Constitution"]

Some analysts have correctly explained the internal political reasons that led millions of French citizens to identify the possible Constitutional Treaty's approval with an endorsement of the policies of French President Jacques Chirac and the recently dismissed French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin. This drove the country to reject the treaty in order to punish the recent political course of the two statesmen. Other observers have highlighted the decisive role of left-wing and socialist themes, such as the defense of the welfare state, which many believe to be under assault by neo-liberal policies advocated by the E.U. Constitutional Treaty, in causing the failure of pro-Treaty supporters.

However, an important political novelty, potentially causing major geopolitical consequences in Europe, seems to be still overlooked: the rise of French pro-sovereignty movements.

Who Are The "Souverainistes"?

"Souverainisme," i.e. political and cultural nationalism, is nowadays rooted in the French political landscape, although the European and Western media tend to consider it a marginal and almost irrelevant phenomenon. It consists of political parties such as the right-of-center Movement for France (M.P.F.), associations, websites, intellectuals, and some individuals within the Christian-Democrats, socialist and neo-Gaullist political spectrum.

The word "souverainisme" has become popular in Québec (because of francophone autonomist movements) rather than France, but its penetration into the French political context has been facilitated by the Maastricht Treaty's implementation and the subsequent birth of an enlarged and more supranational European Union. Its roots are actually in the Gaullist legacy and in the French republican concept of nation, much more than in neo-populist trends. One of the main French sovereignist thinkers, General Pierre-Marie Gallois, was prominent in De Gaulle's military and a promoter of France's use of nuclear technology.

Although French sovereignism is not homogeneous but rather complex in nature (there are conservative-catholic proponents as well as left-wing republican ones), some of its concerns can all the same be summarized as follows: first of all, the nation-state is the only legitimate space in which political and economic sovereignty can be exerted; therefore, regionalist autonomist issues or supranational entities should be fought in order to preserve both the integrity and independence of the state. Secondly, all international agreements or strategic partnerships should not lead to a loss of national sovereignty. Thirdly, E.U.-sponsored supranational policies have led to a decline in national industrial power and to a logjam of research and development spending due to the very restrictive rules of European financial and monetary policies.

It would be trivial and inaccurate, however, to state that sovereignist leaders, such as Philippe de Villiers, head of the small M.P.F. party, or Jean-Pierre Chevènement, the former French defense minister part of the Socialist Party, are "against Europe." In fact, they stand for a different model of European policies, predicated upon strong partnerships among European nation-states. Cooperative industry, public transport, defense technologies, and strategic cooperation to counter excessive American influence over Europe are certainly on the sovereignist agenda. A supranational union is refused not because of hostility towards anything European, but because it's perceived as inefficient and counterproductive.

For right-wing sovereignists, the European Union is the epitome of technocracy and useless bureaucracy which suffocates the "animal spirits" of French capitalism. For left-wing, republican sovereignists, the E.U. is -- on the contrary -- a tool for international financial capital to successfully destroy the national welfare state and the French model of society. Both liberal-conservative and pro-socialist sovereignists perceive globalization as an Anglo-American strategy to conquer important shares of French and continental markets. It's not without reason that José Bové, one of the French anti-global leaders, expressed his satisfaction for the referendum's result in that it represents "the victory of the nation over globalization."

The referendum on the E.U. Constitutional Treaty opened a window of opportunity for all pro-sovereign movements to gain attention and spread their own influence. In fact, a malaise toward European integration and its economic and political consequences has appeared in French society for at least two years. Although France's 2004 G.D.P. growth was more than double that of Italy, and faster than that of several other E.U. states, many still consider it to be unsatisfactory.

The E.U.'s Growth and Stability Pact makes it difficult for Paris to use public spending in order to maintain leadership in the technological and industrial fields, and, from a political point of view, the 2002 decision of some European states like Poland, Lithuania, Bulgaria and Romania to support the U.S. military campaign in Iraq, and not the Franco-German combine's diplomacy efforts, has had important psychological effects: France discovered that many Eastern European countries seem to prefer a N.A.T.O.-based national security alliance rather than taking part in a European Security and Defense Policy led by Paris and Berlin (or even by a Franco-German-British triad). Committed Europeanists, therefore, lost momentum in French political discourse.

The European Paradox

The historical context in which pro-sovereignty movements are gaining strength is a fairly paradoxical one. For instance, it is incorrect to say that "Europe does not exist" due to the result of the recent referenda, an argument that many in this movement are making. On the contrary, the European main states such as France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Belgium -- the "core" of the integration process -- obtained, at least formally, the strategic goals they had set in the early nineties. The E.U. now has a common currency, functioning political institutions like the European Council, the European Commission, and the European Parliament, in addition to security and defense assets such as the Political Committee for Security, the European Headquarters, a secretary general for foreign policy, and even a Rapid Reaction Force.

At the same time, this complex political, economic and military framework does not work in the way some Europeanists dreamt it would, and the E.U. simply has not become what French visionary personalities such as former French President François Mitterrand wanted. In particular, today's European Union is neither the source of a distinctly European vision of world politics, nor the political tool necessary to project French power in the age of globalization. If the international system is shifting from unipolarity to a proto-multipolar structure, it is because of China's rise as a great power, and not because of the European Union. The E.U.'s dramatic division in front of the Iraqi crisis of 2002-2003 was the crucial proof of its weakness as a real global player.

The European paradox is exactly this: the E.U.'s official goals have been reached, but the outcome is quite different from what its main supporters expected 15 years ago.

Geopolitical Consequences

In the aftermath of the double Franco-Dutch rejection of the Constitutional Treaty, European elites are in serious trouble. On the one hand, they know that the result is due to both domestic and European issues, and, consequently, they must strive to remain in power -- not only in Paris or The Hague, but also elsewhere, as the referenda are widely perceived as a political earthquake. On the other hand, they also know that they can't ignore the people's answer to the last decade's Europe-based policies.

As these elites don't appear to have a consistent "plan B," there will be a number of political and geopolitical implications. For the moment, the decisive moves will come precisely from Paris, as it is the source of the current crisis and it has probably the most fragmented political landscape. Political developments in France in the next one to two years are likely to have deep geopolitical consequences for Europe.

Four main questions, however, will need to be accurately analyzed immediately. First of all, will there be a possible return of a "European core" (Kerneuropa) option? This theory was first introduced by German politicians Karl Lamers and Wolfgang Schaeuble in 1994 and lately dismissed as an obsolete plan by German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer himself. Kerneuropa is nothing other than the "first circle" around the Franco-German axis including Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxemburg, setting it as the "magnet" for possible, wider expansions.

The second question will be the development of the already difficult relations between the founding states and the eastern and south-eastern "newcomers." At the heart of the enlargement issue will be the Turkish question, as Ankara's integration into the E.U. has probably been one of the reasons why many political forces in France became increasingly skeptical about the future of European integration. Whether Turkey is part of Europe has been fiercely debated for years, and the question probably has no definitive answer. However, from a purely geopolitical point of view, Turkish integration into the E.U. is not made any easier by "old Europe's" disenchantment with the enlargement.

The third question will be the transatlantic relationship. Here the problem is more complicated than it may seem. Many observers have already said that neoconservatives in Washington are celebrating the European self-sabotage with champagne. However, the Bush administration will be out of power in 2008, and American politics is not only that of neoconservative powerbrokers; indeed, after the intervention in Iraq went badly, they appear to have lost influence in Washington.

A widespread myth is that the U.S. is against European integration, but history shows that this belief is false. Washington has consistently backed the Old Continent's efforts to build common economic and political policies, as long as they are based upon free market principles and a strong commitment to the Atlantic Alliance. Therefore, a serious crisis in the E.U. could trigger anti-European trends that are far from welcomed by Washington. What if, for example, France and/or Germany opt for stronger military ties with China instead of building a common security policy embedded in the Atlantic framework? History has already shown some surprises, and what appears unthinkable today could become possible tomorrow.

The fourth question has to do with developments in the United Kingdom and in other European countries. Will London still hold a referendum now that the allegedly very Europeanist peoples of France and the Netherlands have already rejected the Treaty? Will other strong pro-sovereignty movements take off in European societies?


Especially in the 1990s, it was fashionable to say that nation-states were becoming obsolete. A unified world of free markets and international organizations was supposed to rise, thus throwing older policies and theories into history's trash can. Today's political and geopolitical realities tell us that nation-states are still very alive, and that national cultures matter much in shaping our political landscape. Recent attempts to build strong supranational entities such as the European Union have not nurtured the deep cultural changes necessary for their success, even when their formal goals have actually been reached.

The French pro-sovereignty movements are rooted in the heart of Europe's integration engine, and their contribution to the E.U. Constitutional Treaty's failure has been considerable. Pro-European Constitution parties are nonetheless still the most influential factions in France, and they will now have the opportunity to counter-attack. It is therefore very difficult to predict a further rise of parties like the M.P.F. or Jean-Pierre Chevènement's Republican Movement. However, a window of opportunity has opened for them along with a radically different vision of Europe: that of a common political space rather than a new political unit.

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