News Analysis: France searches for its place in a wider Union

Posted in Europe | 27-Sep-04 | Author: Katrin Bennhold| Source: International Herald Tribune

PARIS Like literary evenings on the Left Bank and velvety wines from the vineyards around Bordeaux, soul-searching about France's place in the world is a recurrent part of the country's cultural repertoire.

Five months after the European Union welcomed 10 new members, the soul-searching is again in full swing - and this time, politicians and political observers say, it could last a while.

While all the big West European nations are seeing their influence diluted as the Union has grown from 15 to 25 members, debate is sharpest in France, the cradle of the European project.

Morose commentaries on declining French power abound, in the press, in political books and as chatter in ministerial corridors. Meanwhile, a public long supportive of European integration is becoming less trusting of Brussels, while the French political class is fighting over the European constitution, the risk of jobs moving east, and the possible entry of Turkey.

Of course, France is not unique in seeing its role in Europe diminished; as a smaller part of a greater group, the French voice, like that of the Germans, British or Italians, counts for less.

But in France, which prides itself on its role in the EU's creation, this reality is perhaps harder to accept than elsewhere - especially given the impending end of its traditional institutional power parity with its closest EU ally, Germany.

And there is more to it than institutional arithmetic. A chief architect of so many of Europe's big innovations, from the single market to the euro, Paris these days is having trouble winning sympathy for its initiatives. Add to that recent discordant outbursts with European partners over issues ranging from Iraq to industrial policy, and France is looking increasingly isolated.

Nicolas Bavarez, who shook the intellectual establishment last year with his book "France in Free Fall," says the situation has worsened in the past 12 months.

"France is a country in deep crisis, with doubts about its identity and its place in the world," Bavarez said in a recent interview. To be sure, France remains a power to be reckoned with. Its economy, the fifth-largest in the world, is sputtering but doing better than Germany's. As a nuclear power and a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, its defense capabilities and political clout are essential for any military cooperation in Europe. And for all the frustration it sometimes provokes, France continues to inspire for its rich cultural heritage.

But compared with the 1950s, when French authority in Europe's initial Club of Six was unrivaled, today's picture couldn't be more different.

Take the bickering over the new European Commission. President Jacques Chirac was scolded in the press last month for winning only the minor transport portfolio for Jacques Barrot, France's commissioner in the 25-strong body - a snub intensified when Britain received the high-profile trade brief. That followed a bigger setback in June, when France and Germany unsuccessfully championed Belgium's Guy Verhofstadt for the commission's presidency.

In the spring, during debate over the EU constitution - drafted by a former French president, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing - France lobbied for the scrapping of national vetoes in some fields of foreign policy and taxation, but the British prevailed with their red lines.

According to Hubert Védrine, a former foreign minister, France's vision of Europe as a powerful political entity standing up to the United States on the world stage causes as much reticence among fellow European states as its ideas about how to run an economy.

Today it is the Atlanticists in Europe, with their Anglo-Saxon free enterprise and their acceptance of America's predominance, who have triumphed, he said. Britain, long the odd one out in Europe, has inspired many of the new members, including the Czech Republic, Slovakia and the Baltic states, with its economic system and loyalty to the United States.

"It's true that our influence in Brussels has decreased," Védrine, who is a member of the opposition Socialist Party, said in a telephone interview. "In part this is a mechanical by-product of enlargement. But it's also due to the current ideological environment."

Part of the problem has been France's sometimes abrasive handling of the new entrants, Védrine said. In the worst split the EU ever experienced, most East European countries sided with Britain on the Iraq invasion even before they had formally joined the EU. When Chirac clumsily told them that they had "missed a good opportunity to keep quiet," their defiance only grew.

Today, France feels it has been proved right on most of its arguments against an invasion of Iraq. But with two French journalists taken hostage in Iraq last month and the government in Paris so far unable to negotiate their release, despite the support of Muslim leaders across the Middle East, any sense of vindication has been overshadowed by a sense of impotence.

Dominique Moïsi, senior adviser to the French Institute of International Relations in Paris, put it this way: "The French are asking themselves, 'We were right over Iraq, but is it paying off?' The hostage crisis is symbolic of the current self-doubts."

Meanwhile, recent French calls for tax harmonization across the EU to discourage French companies from moving east, where corporate taxes are far lower, have fallen on deaf ears. Back in Paris, the message is sinking in. As a senior official close to Foreign Minister Michel Barnier acknowledged last week: "In the enlarged Europe, we have to work differently and form coalitions." Obvious, perhaps, but a significant shift in French thinking.

Traditionally, France has teamed up with Germany to coordinate positions prior to EU meetings. In both governments, officials stress that cooperation is as close as ever.

But as Germany has seen its relative position strengthened by enlargement, it may be less inclined to join forces with its traditional ally in the future. The new constitution, which still needs to be ratified, would give Germans 99 seats in the European Parliament, compared with France's 72 seats.

As the EU's budget round for the period from 2007 to 2013 gets under way, the interests of Germany, the Union's largest net contributor, and France, the main beneficiary of generous agricultural subsidies, risk diverging sharply. Already, the German government has distanced itself more than once from French behavior in the EU. It criticized Sarkozy for intervening in the merger of the French drug giant Sanofi-Synthelabo and the French-German Aventis, and was indignant when Paris blocked ambitions by the engineering group Siemens to take over part of Alstom.

Germany has also managed to normalize its relationship with the United States at a time when tensions between Paris and Washington remain high.

If some elements of France's waning influence in Europe are beyond its control, for others the country has largely itself to blame.

Moïsi says the fact that French politicians have increasingly focused on national rather than European interests has hurt France's credibility in Europe.

"If the French can't sell their ideas in Europe as easily anymore, it's in part because the ideas are less European," Moïsi said.

The issue has moved center stage at the Foreign Ministry since Barnier took over in April, when Chirac moved him back to Paris from a post on the European Commission in Brussels. During the annual meeting of France's top 300 diplomats last month, Barnier pledged to "consolidate and increase France's influence in Europe." But he also warned against treating the EU's smaller states with arrogance. "France is not great when it is arrogant; it is not strong when it is alone," he said.

This is a far cry from Charles de Gaulle's proclaiming "an exalted and exceptional destiny" for his country.

Just as that vision was exaggerated, some in France are perhaps now exaggerating the decline, observers say.

"France has always had more self-pride than other European nations," said Stefan Collignon, professor for European political economy at the London School of Economics. "They were never as powerful as they thought and, by the same token, their loss of power now is perhaps not as dramatic as it may seem."International Herald Tribune