DOWN a muddy path in a clearing in the forest of Compiègne, in northern France, lies a musty-smelling little museum. Amid scraps from trench life displayed in glass cabinets, the museum’s chief exhibit is an old oak railway-carriage, a replica of wagon 2419D, used on this spot by Marshall Foch to sign the 1918 armistice with Germany–and then by a vengeful Adolf Hitler to secure France’s surrender to Nazi forces in 1940. The modest memorial is a big and sobering reminder of the historical impulses that prompted the French to pursue the post-war European project. As President François Hollande prepares for the centenary of the start of the first world war next year, however, it also exposes a widening gap between those ambitions and a new French ambivalence about the European Union.
As a founder-member with Germany, France has, for over half a century, put the construction of Europe and the taming of Germany at the heart of foreign policy. If the British have grown up on tabloid Euroscepticism to regard Europe as a menace to national power, the French have been taught to see Europe as an amplifier of theirs. Europe, according to the French creed, is the solution, not the problem. To any new obstacle: more Europe still.
Yet four years after the start of the euro-zone crisis, with joblessness at a 16-year high and a recession-battered economy, disillusion has set in. In today’s French mind, the EU has become too big, too distant, too focused on austerity and trade: a constraint, not a means of salvation. Only 41% of the French now say that they are favourably disposed to the EU, according to Pew Research, far fewer than in Germany (60%)–and fewer even than in Britain (43%). Fully 77% say that European integration has weakened their economy, more than in Spain or Italy. One in three of the French would leave the EU today, according to a YouGov poll.
On the fringes of French politics, populists are surfing this sentiment with zeal. When Mr Hollande on November 12th welcomed EU leaders to Paris to discuss youth unemployment, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a Communist-backed firebrand, derided them as the “undertakers of the European ideal”. On the far right, Marine Le Pen predicts gleefully that the EU will collapse “like the Soviet Union” under the weight of its own contradictions. Her National Front could come first in European Parliament elections next May.
Even the pro-European elite is voicing its second thoughts. François Heisbourg, of the Foundation for Strategic Research, has just published “The End of the European Dream”, which argues that the euro cannot survive without a degree of integration that is politically unrealistic. His remedy? The orderly dismantling of the single currency in order to rebuild the EU on solid ground.
French ambivalence towards Europe is not entirely new. France voted by only a whisker for the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, which launched the euro, and in 2005 sprung a shock by voting against the draft European constitution. Nor is it new for French leaders, left and right, to grumble about Europe–in particular the unloved European Commission–while using its edicts to impose unpalatable reforms at home. In the past, however, such setbacks did not alter the elite’s generally unshakable faith in further integration, or their confidence in their ability to shape it as they wanted. What seems different this time is that euro-antipathy is curbing France’s European vision.
Security policy aside, France has become, in the words of a European diplomat, “low-ambition” on Europe. It is not that the French lack ideas. They are pushing for banking union; they want a budget for the euro zone (a simpler forum to operate in, without the pesky British); and proper social transfers. But much of their Europe policy is defensive. They are prickly about criticism in Brussels of economic weakness and tried to shrug off news that GDP shrank by 0.1% in the third quarter. They dislike attempts to meddle in national policy; the commission, snapped Mr Hollande, should not “dictate” pension reform in France. They are set against any talk of a new treaty and nervous about Germany’s preference for competitiveness “contracts” that would allow Brussels to intrude even more.
Leading from behind
The upshot is that France is in a state “not of retreat, but resignation” over Europe, says Thomas Klau of the European Council on Foreign Relations. This matters. Although today’s more assertive Germany has outgrown the need to be handcuffed to its neighbour over the Rhine, it knows that little can get done, especially on the euro, without France. Germany may lead Europe, but it does not want to be seen to be deciding everything alone.
A protégé of Jacques Delors, architect of the single currency, Mr Hollande intends to be a good European and a genuine partner. But he is caught in a pincer-hold that is partly of his own making. He is struggling to rally support among smaller countries for his sort of Europe–more solidarity, less economic oversight. At the same time, his standing at home is curbing his ability to make the case for more Europe. After various mishandled muddles and a tax revolt, Mr Hollande’s authority has sunk, and his poll rating has dropped to just 21%, a record low. The result, laments a French official, is “zero political debate about Europe”.
Crablike, Mr Hollande is trying to do just enough on Europe, without aggravating nationalism at home. Through the 1914 centenary, he still hopes to find words to rehabilitate Europe and unite the nation. “To commemorate”, he declared in a remembrance speech marked by vocabulary usually reserved for the right, “is to renew patriotism.” Yet however moving the centenary events next year prove, or memorials like that in Compiègne remain, France’s faltering faith in the European project will make it an increasingly unpredictable partner.
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