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 especially special. After all, had France not invented the modern nation state-even modernity itself?
The greatness of France, l’exception française-what others would call French chauvinism-has seemed to be in hibernation for much of the 20th century. The nuclear ripples from Muroroa now signify, to some observers, the beginning of the end of that hibernation. But perhaps exceptionalism never succumbed to deep slumber. Perhaps it was merely snoozing, while co-habiting with Europe. Or-perish the thought-it was wide awake all the time, deviously imposing its will on credulous neighbours.
According to Ernest Renan’s definition, the French nation brings together individuals who have a common past, present and future. In the 19th century, historians such as Guizot and Michelet tried to trace the emergence of national sentiment, and found it in the Hundred Years’ War. France, wrote Michelet, owes a great debt to England. It was the English invaders who awoke the French from the long enchantment of the middle ages. From then on, France became aware of itself. French history proceeded to further glories and claimed a superiority over other peoples. This reached a thrilling zenith when the nation and the Revolution became synonymous. In 1793 a French deputy admitted that he loved all men, especially free men, but above all men in the universe he loved Frenchmen-and above all else he preferred his motherland. The revolutionaries planned to annexe the territories adjoining France so that others, too, could enjoy the privileges of Frenchness. The French nation-old, young, male and female-was mobilised in order to defend France and to demonstrate its superiority. The term “La Grande Nation” came into common currency.
In the 19th century the French nation came into being properly, as industrialisation and urbanisation brought people together. But writers such as Victor Hugo, popular poets such as B?nger, and historians such as Michelet kept the legends of patriotism alive. France, wrote Michelet, is a religion. When the crisis of 1914 arose, Clemenceau declared that for the first time since the Hundred Years’ War, France was faced by a power which was implacable in its determination to be superior. In the dark days after Germany’s defeat of France in 1940, French Resistance fighters looked back to the days of 1792 and 1793, when ordinary people could turn the world upside down.
La Grande Nation was sustained by symbols, festivals, school text books, and elaborate celebrations of the past. In France, politics is memory: “Je comm?re, donc je suis.” But politics is also culture and language. Charles V, who ascended the French throne in 1364, ordered a churchman, Nicole Oresme, to translate Aristotle; an illustrated manuscript in the Biblioth?ue Nationale in Paris shows the translation being read to the king. This is the record of a cultural transfer. The language of knowledge and culture had once been Greek; then it became Latin; henceforth, it would be French. French greatness was always associated with the French language, and with its achievements in literature. The French state, whether in the person of a king or a minister, played its part in perpetuating this principle. France’s enemies have been cultural as well as political-hence her anti-American tradition. Extension of French power has always meant the extension of the French language and culture. The acquisition of colonies overseas may have been a matter of economics and strategy, but it was also “la mission civilisatrice de la France.”
To describe France as a nation state with a particular emphasis on national independence and a preoccupation with its greatness and superiority is commonplace. It is therefore all the more difficult to envisage France in a European Union which would significantly erode its sovereignty. In 1987, when enthusiasm for European integration was rising, there were, to be sure, Frenchmen who claimed that a European nation had already been born-for example, Yann de l’Ecotais, the assistant editor of the weekly L’Express. But France had always opposed projects of continental union, unless organised and led by itself. Charles VII and Joan of Arc had removed the threat of an Anglo-French monarchy. Francis I had allied with the German Protestants and Turkish Muslims in order to defeat the then Holy Roman Emperor’s dream of reconstituting the empire of Charlemagne. Richelieu and Louis XIII had opposed the Habsburgs. To the French, the only legitimate unifying projects were those led by Louis XIV and Napoleon.
the fall of the Berlin wall, and the return of nationalism to Europe, might have been an occasion for the French to recall their glorious past. But if this did evoke memories, it did not appear to re-awaken franco-centrisme. Would not some French political party seek to profit from the occasion? The French had the memory of a Communist party, the shadow of a Gaullist party, and the presence of a National Front party-all, in their time, ready to shake the structures of power in the name of the nation. Exceptionalism did not wake (although some stirring was detectable). The sociologist Alain Touraine lamented this lack of response, and declared that the French were too preoccupied with the question of whether young Muslim girls in France should be allowed to wear head scarves at school.
Touraine was being ironic. But the idea of the Republic had changed in the post-war decades. Exceptionalism had begun to seep away; sometimes even directly challenged by a growing Europeanism. This change began in the 1940s and gathered pace in the 1960s and 1970s. Historical study in schools became less patriotic (and more scholarly). This was lamented by some people, and one minister of education attacked the influence of Fernand Braudel’s emphasis on long term social and economic developments. French historians poured scorn on the idea of geographical determinism in the formation of the French state. (Some amused themselves by imagining the different kinds of France that might have emerged-thus there could have been a Mediterranean France, a Franco-English empire or a Burgundian France.) Patriotism in the Revolutionary and Imperial years was not a factor which united the social classes. It is a fact that the ordinary people of western France opposed the Revolution; in 1790 scarcely a tenth of the population could speak French properly; and those who supposedly sang the Marseillaise as they marched on Paris spoke Provençal rather than French. Desertion from the armies of Napoleon was frequent.
The French Revolution is no longer perceived as unique; the industrial creativity and population growth which had existed before 1789 was replaced, after the downfall of Napoleon, by a long period of economic stagnation and political frustration. When, at the time of the bi-centenary celebrations in 1989, a television film showed the trial of Louis XVI and the audience was asked to vote on the verdict, a large majority voted against the death sentence and in favour of exile (although those who had friendly feelings towards the monarch thought that the place of exile should have been Monaco, while those who retained critical feelings thought that he should have been sent to England). The historian François Furet proclaimed that the Revolution was over, and that France had come into harbour.
But the important factors which undermined exceptionalism were the acknowledgment of the full consequences of the defeat of 1940 and the discovery of what had really happened on French soil during the years of German occupation. How could France claim to be a great country when it had suffered total defeat and surrendered? How could the French see themselves as the leaders of European civilisation when they had collaborated with an enemy, and when the Vichy government was not only responsible for passing anti-Jewish legislation but had also actively participated in rounding up Jews and sending them to concentration camps? The Gaullist myth that the real government of France was in exile, and that all Frenchmen had been spiritually, if not actively, in the Resistance, gradually collapsed. Most French people had tried to avoid getting mixed up either with the Resistance or with collaboration. Some were indifferent; some were prudent; most made the best of things. Natural enough-but a far cry from the proud self-image of people who challenged the political principles of the world in 1790, who followed a man in a green-grey coat across Europe a few years later, and who said “They shall not pass” in 1917.
On May 8th 1945, when the German army surrendered to the allies in Berlin at a ceremony organised by the Russians, General de Lattre de Tassigny represented France. As Marshall Keitel entered, his eye fell on a tricolour flag (which had been hastily manufactured). “So the French are here too-that’s all we need,” he growled. General de Gaulle, backed by Winston Churchill, was determined that the French should be present at the flattening of Germany. He ensured that France became one of the four occupying powers and a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.
During the years after Germany’s defeat, Europe became a dominant French preoccupation. There was talk of a customs union with the Low Countries and Belgium. The idea of dismembering Germany quickly faded. Indeed, some French intellectuals envisaged reconstructing the continent arm in arm with the Germans-as joint aristocrats of the new Europe. To them, European civilisation resided more in France and Germany than in Bolshevik Russia or off-shore UK.
During the following 30 years three Frenchmen played outstanding parts in shaping the European community: Jean Monnet, Charles de Gaulle and Jacques Delors. No doubt they helped to coax France into making its peace with the idea of Europe. If La Grande Nation had to be subsumed into a larger whole, at least it would be one in which French concerns and interests prevailed. De Gaulle, who died 25 years ago this November, is the seminal post-war figure, combining in one personality both exceptionalism and “post-exceptionalism.”
The embodiment of French grandeur, de Gaulle’s devout love for France seemed sometimes to extend to the whole of Europe. In his last set of memoirs he suggested that Europeans are linked by a common culture and form a single entity. Did the man whoquoted Pushkin in Russian in Leningrad, and saw the crowds weep, believe that these people were part of the same entity? Is this what he meant by Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals?
De Gaulle was in many respects a good European, even in a sense which a European federalist would understand. Having accepted the Treaty of Rome he respected its terms with great care. The European customs union came into force; the European common agricultural policy was established; in 1963 the General complimented the young Commission in Brussels for its “objective and pertinent” work. He was genuinely interested in political union. In January 1961 he wrote to the French ambassador in Washington: “Our European policy is to create an organisation of political union, with the ultimate perspective of creating a confederation.” These plans did not proceed when the Dutch government rejected them on the grounds that they excluded the UK. They have subsequently been dismissed by European enthusiasts because they did not envisage the establishment of a supra-national authority.
But the more relevant point is that de Gaulle’s Europeanism was based on a Franco-German alliance constructed on France’s terms. He twice rejected the British application to join the Common Market because the British seemed to him too pro-American-and because they would challenge his position as the political leader of Europe. A European viewpoint was always accompanied by a national preoccupation; “France is not France if she is not great” was his avowed principle. Thus he rejected any attempt to hand over the defence of France to the United States. He opposed the European Defence Community Treaty, proposed by the French prime minister Ren?leven in 1950, because it would have been dominated by the US. His decision in March 1966 that France should leave Nato was, as he explained to US President Lyndon Johnson, “So that France should recover complete sovereignty over French territory.”
But during the years when General de Gaulle was at the helm of both Europe and La Grande Nation, France was changing rapidly beneath him. Many French political traditions had their roots in rural culture and individualistic economic activity. These roots were now withering. Old industrial sectors such as steel, coal and textiles declined. Villages and small towns saw their caf?closed and their churches locked. Prosperous large towns with daring architecture and widely spread economic interests sprouted ghettos which became concentrations of poverty, violence and disillusionment. Four and a half million immigrants came to live permanently in France, and Islam became its second religion. Surely French exceptionalism had no place under such changed conditions, and a population that had undergone such rapid change had no desire for greatness. (It is said that in the 1980s only 5 per cent of the French population actually wanted to aspire to national greatness.)
europe has always been a matter for national elites. This is particularly true of France. When, in the 1950s, Jean Monnet was proselytising on behalf of his Comit?’Action pour les Etats-Unis de l’Europe, he lobbied only what the British call the “quality papers.” Monnet’s effect on public opinion was non-existent; in July 1956 half the French population had no idea that the European Atomic Energy Committee existed-although it was seen as crucial to European institution-building. French public opinion showed little interest when the Treaty of Rome was being drafted and it was only the Suez crisis of November 1956 which rallied public support for Europe.
Monnet always worked through French elites. The European movement appealed to l’opinion eclair?and ignored the masses-this was consistent with the traditions of French government. With a self-conscious administrative elite, (invariably graduates of the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, known as the Enarques), French officials were able to work in Brussels free from direct political interference. It is noticeable that the negotiations for the Schuman Plan and the Treaty of Rome were not carried out by the political leaders or by diplomats, but by Jean Monnet, an administrator, and by Maurice Faure, the 35-year-old junior secretary of state in the foreign ministry (the minister himself, Christian Pineau, was then wholly absorbed by the Algerian problem). Both Monnet and Faure were backed by teams of skilful fonctionnaires. Edgar Pisani said later that he won the day on the common agricultural programme because he had the best team. French officials acquired their reputation for determined and effective footwork in defending French interests and defeating supra-nationalism.
But while the elites had become thoroughly European-buoyed up by their ability to dominate the emergent institutions of Europe-the French masses evidently remained more sceptical. Who, after all, had ever consulted them? When somebody finally did consult them they gave a rude reply. In 1992, when President François Mitterrand decided that the Treaty of Maastricht should be submitted to a national referendum, the result threw the whole future of Europe into doubt. Mitterrand was responding to the critics who claimed that European business was always carried out behind closed doors; he was re-asserting his own position as a Europeanist (which had been the basis of his electoral campaign in 1988); he saw the advantage of creating a political stir shortly after the departure of the unsuccessful Edith Cresson and the appointment of Pierre B?govoy as prime minister. But if the referendum came down against Maastricht-and the first opinion polls suggested that it would-then a crisis in the European Union would surely follow. The uncertainties of the outcome were increased when, just over a week before the vote, on September 20th, the president went into hospital for an operation; it became clear that he was seriously ill. Would the French vote for his referendum out of sympathy for a sick man? Would they vote for Europe (even if they disapproved of the socialist president) once it seemed likely that he would not be in power for long? In fact, just over 51 per cent of French men and women voted in favour of Maastricht, with just over 48 per cent voting against. The referendum exposed a number of fissures which continue to trouble French society. The better-educated and better-off voted in favour; the extremes of both left and right voted against; there were also strong regional differences in voting patterns-the economically depressed areas voted against the Maastricht proposals.
In the 1994 European elections the main pro-European political parties in France (Socialist, Giscardian and Gaullist) gained only 40 per cent of the votes. Nevertheless, in the presidential elections of April-May this year, there were still no mainstream anti-European candidates. Anti-Europeans would have had to vote for Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front-but there were other reasons for not doing so.
are we any closer to understanding what sort of Europeans the French are, or are likely to become? Despite the apparent retreat from French exceptionalism in the post-war decades, the Maastricht referendum suggests that France will never accept a full-blooded federal Europe with the power to over-rule nation states. It will tolerate closer integration only so long as fundamental French national interests remain unchallenged.
It may even be appropriate to talk of a new exceptionalism. The most striking example of this was the decision to proceed with nuclear testing. It had been on the cards, before the presidential elections, that tests would be carried out. Edouard Balladur had included them in his election programme, too. But Jacques Chirac deliberately startled the world by announcing that they would actually take place-an announcement made on the eve of his visit to the US, so that it was as the leader of a great power that he arrived there. He subsequently offered the French bomb to the EU for its defence. The UK had not carried out recent nuclear tests, so France could pose as the leader of Europe.
Assurances were offered that the tests could cause no harm. Why then could they not take place in France? But, came the reply, they are taking place in France; Muroroa is French. Indeed, France still has an empire which stretches beyond her constitutional dependencies. Shortly after his election as president, Chirac journeyed to Africa, to meet some 18 African leaders, accompanied by a reinstated Jacques Foccart, de Gaulle’s agent for secret activities in Africa. The French government has also suspended the Schengen agreement which allows free movement across frontiers within the EU-because of French attitudes to Dutch laws on drug dealing, and worries about the Belgian frontier.
But there can be no return to full exceptionalism. If, to the French, the central point of Europe is Germany, then their engagement with it is more necessary than ever. The days are long gone when General de Gaulle felt able to praise and patronise Germany. But, at least until unification, the French elite could claim some parity of esteem with Germany in its obsessive comparison of the two countries. With the new Germany such a claim is no longer possible. (This is why Edouard Balladur, when he was prime minister, planned to revise the Franco-German treaty. He had also planned a Europe of concentric circles, where agreements would be made with different states on particular subjects, for example a defence agreement between France and the UK, or agreements between countries bordering the Mediterranean.)
In macro-economics, too, the logic points towards further European integration. France, like other nation states, has lost power to global markets; the French, because of their dirigiste tradition, have found the loss especially painful. The experience of the first two years of the Mitterrand government (1981-83), when market pressures called a halt to an expansive economic reflation, has left a deep scar. This convinced a large part of the governing elite that French sovereignty, for which they had been trained to do battle, no longer existed-at least in the monetary sphere. In turn this helped to reinforce the idea of a European solution to France’s tussle with market constraints. In practice this has meant seeking some leverage over the Bundesbank through a single currency.
Compared with some of their neighbours, the French remain comfortable with many of the trappings of Europe-particularly those they have created themselves. As Jacques Delors has pointed out, Europe is part of daily life in France. The French speak of “eurocrats,” “eurocredits” and “eurocheques.” “Euromissile” and “eurostrategy” are recent additions; “eurofranc” may come next. And “euroculture” is a useful word against Americanisation.
But the heady days of 1970s and 1980s Euro-enthusiasm are over. So long as Europe could be presented as an economic opportunity, no one quarrelled with it. Now the franc fort is associated with deflation and permanently high unemployment. Now EU competition is seen as destroying the livelihoods of fishermen, vegetable and fruit growers, shoemakers, and some car manufacturers. Now that the single market’s “level playing field” appears to bear down upon France’s most established (and subsidy-hungry) companies, “Europe” no longer has such a reassuring ring. It is often opposed, sometimes even with violence.
The French remain committed to a single currency, and they know that it cannot happen without them. The government is committed to a European defence strategy; it might move closer to Nato than Balladur (when prime minister), which would consolidate its agreement with the UK but highlight the importance of a nuclear France. Equally, France wants a Europe in which European institutions are weak-and it is difficult to see France entering a hard-core union of five or six states in which Germany would be dominant. If La Grande Nation is to continue living in sin with Europe, Jacques Chirac would prefer a more complex, triangular relationship of France, Germany and the UK-in that order. Who is to say he will not get it?