More than any other European nation, the French have a powerful sense of historical destiny. Having exported their values to the world in 1789, their self-confidence ebbed away in the 20th century. But with the election of Jacques Chirac, a new Gaullist assertiveness is making itself heard. Douglas Johnson asks whether it can co-exist with an integrating Europeby Douglas Johnson / December 20, 1995 / Leave a comment
Hindsight is the arrogance of the unimaginative. But all the same, no one should have expected much from the recent meeting between Jacques Chirac and John Major. They called each other by their first names and enjoyed a little nuclear cosiness. But there is no new Franco-British alliance concerning Europe. Not yet.
Intelligence agents have been busy collecting scraps of President Chirac’s conversations in which he has made hostile remarks about the European Union-as he is wont to make about the Serbs, the Russians and the Tahitians. But talk, peppered with insults, is one thing. Policy is another. It has taken two republics, five presidents and some 20 prime ministers for the French to arrive at their present position in the European Union. Chirac has often adopted contradictory policies, and he may behave unpredictably, but no one should expect a volte-face in French diplomacy.
Before his arrival in London Chirac had just visited Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and accordingly was unlikely to show any coolness to the German alliance. Nor was he likely to qualify France’s commitment to the single European currency on the same day that Yves Thibault de Silguy, the European commissioner for economic affairs, a Frenchman, was in London giving a solemn assurance that the new monetary system would proceed on January 1st 1999 as planned. For those who supposed, with some justification, that Chirac’s presidential campaign had shown a degree of scepticism about Europe, they have suffered Falstaffian disappointment following the crowning of the prince.
But if we are to be cautious in approaching Chirac’s short term political calculations, there is no reason why we should not consider a more fundamental question: how European are the French? Or more accurately: what sort of Europeans are the French? If, for France, the first half of the 20th century was a story of turmoil and catastrophe in Europe, the second half has been dominated by French involvement in different forms of European integration. The two periods, we are often told, are related-as cause is to effect. They are both part of the national history of France. They also represent the suppression of an earlier concept of the nation-a country proud, strong and independent; a people in the vanguard of History. All nations know that they are special; but the French Revolution would prove, both to themselves and to the rest of the world, that the French nation was…