French foreign policy: so far, François, So good

On foreign policy, the French president is proving skilful and radical.

Given France’s importance as a world power, a member of the UN Security Council, one of the world’s largest economies, a nuclear power, and a driver of the EU project, French foreign policy under President Hollande is of fundamental importance to all of us.

Ironically no one mentioned foreign policy in six months of presidential campaigning. And Hollande is without a nano-second of government practice, let along international experience. Unnervingly, therefore, the answer to the question "Whither France in the world?" is quite simply "We don’t know, because no one has told us".

Hollande arrived at the Elysee Palace this month without much of a foreign policy narrative at all. And yet he was immediately confronted with numerous top-level international meetings of unprecedented intensity. On the day of his inauguration Hollande flew to Berlin to discuss the contentious issues of the Fiscal Treaty with its arch-backer Angela Merkel. After that it was to the United States for his first meeting with President Obama. Hollande had uncomfortable news – France would be pulling its troops out of Afghanistan. Then it was on to summits with the G8, NATO, G20 ones, and last but by no means least, the EU.

Even an experienced diplomat like Kissinger would have found this taxing. Hollande was faced with challenges of breathtaking complexity for a man whose recent overseas experience amounted to little more than put-putting around Greek islands on his motor scooter. However, just two weeks in and he has been doing rather well. We may be facing an unusual phenomenon in French politics: some politicians, through a difficult to analyse combination of virtù and fortuna, are lucky.

When, at the start of his presidential campaign, Hollande said he wanted to renegotiate the Eurozone Fiscal Treaty people laughed. It sounded as if Hollande was just making it up, and that he would pay the price with stock market chaos and Merkel’s ire. But fortuna has been good to him. It soon became clear that he was not alone in wanting more emphasis on growth and less on austerity. Italy piped up, as did Greece, and when Hollande met Obama , even he told him the US wanted stimulus growth in Europe. Even Germany may be changing its tune. With the German CDU getting a drubbing in the May North-Rhine Westphalia elections, and Merkel facing further elections in 2013, its vice-like grip on austerity no longer seems both politically as well as economically unquestionable. Hollande increasingly looks not just competent in capitals across Europe and North America, but also a man possessed with forethought.

Likewise, to tell the leader of the free world that to distinguish himself from his main rival in the election campaign he had to promise French troops would be withdrawn early from Afghanistan is not an easy thing to raise during your first meeting. But once again, luckily for Hollande "Home for Christmas" is logistically near impossible. 3,500 troops, 900 vehicles and 1400 containers cannot be removed from Afghanistan before December. Hollande will withdraw the troops, but in a way that will not trigger the fury of the Americans, while dismaying his domestic audience.

So far, François, so good. It won’t always be like this though. Cuts in spending – in defence especially – are looming, as are a mountain of other problems. And they are truly Himalayan: the ongoing Arab Spring, Syria, Iran, Sub-Saharan Africa. But many of these states are happy with a Hollande presidency. In his desperate attempts to beat off the challenge from the far right, Sarkozy’s campaign angered many of these African States, with its undertones of colonialism and even – intended or not – racism. And France’s former colonies really are ready for a new kind of relationship with the Motherland, who has sometimes been anything but maternal.

But it is not just new relationships with foreign powers that Hollande must forge. He needs quickly to develop a new foreign policy rhetoric and narrative that will define his presidency. Since de Gaulle, a certain logic has driven French foreign policy and the French Socialist Party’s overall foreign policy has not been markedly dissimilar from the mainstream right’s. That is a real shame, for new ideas and approaches from the intelligent, sophisticated, and politically thoughtful French would be so welcome in the world today, given the challenges the world faces.

For today at least, Hollande is one of the luckiest politicians in the history of the Fifth Republic. It remains to be seen: he may turn out to be one of the most skilful, and in foreign policy at least, the most radical.

John Gaffney is the co-director of the Aston Centre for Europe

French President François Hollande meets with Barack Obama following their bilateral meeting in the Oval Office at the White House. Photograph: Getty Images.

John Gaffney is the co-director of the Aston Centre for Europe, specialising in French politics and the discourse of leadership.

Felipe Araujo
Show Hide image

Hull revisited: What happens when a Brexit stronghold becomes City of Culture?

We report from Hull, to find out if you can replace the kind of nostalgia that led to a Leave vote with cultural investment.

At 75 metres long, the offshore wind turbine blade erected across Queen Victoria Square, in the heart of Hull, is a sculpture intended to mark a new chapter in the city’s history. For the next 12 months, Hull, a city of more than a quarter of a million people in the northeast of England, will be the UK’s City of Culture.

The 28-tonne blade hails from the local Siemens plant. The German technology company employs around 1,000 people in the area, making it Hull’s biggest single employer.

Seen up close in this context – laid dormant in the middle of a town square instead of spinning up in the air generating energy – the structure is meant to remind passersby of a giant sea creature. It is also, I’m told, an allusion to Hull’s rich maritime history.


All photos: Felipe Araujo

Nostalgia is a big thing in this part of the country. At one point, Hull was the UK’s third largest port but technology and privatisation drastically changed that. The battle over cod fishing with Iceland in the waters of the North Sea 40 years ago has also dealt a major blow to a region with a long and proud trawling tradition.

People here still talk about a bygone era when the fishing industry provided jobs for everyone and there was enough money to go around.

Fast forward to 2017, and the country’s new capital of culture is the same city that voted 67 per cent in favour of leaving the EU last June. Its new-found prestige, it seems, is not enough to erase years of neglect by a political class “too busy for commoners like us”, as one resident puts it.

“More than a message to Brussels, it [the Brexit vote] was a message to Westminster,” Paul Leeson-Taylor, a filmmaker born and bred in Hull, tells me. “For the first time in a long time people in Hull felt like they had the chance to change something, and they took it.”

But while speaking to people on the high street and hanging out with locals at the Community Boxing Club in Orchard Park, one of the city’s most deprived areas, there is one word that consistently popped up in conversation – more than any specific policy from Westminster or the much-hated rules “dictated” by Brussels. Foreigners.

According to official figures, Hull’s population is 89.1 per cent white British. Still, immigration is big on people’s minds here.

During my two-day stay in the city, I find myself being the only black person in most places I visit – I’m certainly the only black guy at the boxing club. So when someone begins a sentence with “I’m not racist but…”, I know a tirade on immigrants is about to ensue.

“There are just too many of them,” Nick Beach, an estate agent whose Polish clientele is a big part of his business, tells me as he is about to teach a boxing class to local children. Beach was born in Shepherd’s Bush, in West London, but has been living in Hull for the last 20 years.

“When I go down there these days and go into Westfield shopping centre, it is very rare you get an English person serving you now,” he says. “I just find it disappointing that you go into your capital city and you are a minority there.”

These are the much-discussed “left behind”, a white working-class community that has gained particular prominence in a time of Brexit and Donald Trump. Under economic pressure and facing social change, they want to have their say in running a country they claim to no longer recognise.

For Professor Simon Lee, a senior politics lecturer at the University of Hull, immigration is only a superficial layer when it comes to explaining the resentment I witness here. For him, the loss of the empire 70 years ago is still something that as a country Britain hasn’t come to terms with.

“The reason for us to be together as a United Kingdom has gone, so what is the project?”

As destiny would have it, a foreign company will now play a major role on Hull’s economic future, at least in the short term. In the wake of the Brexit vote, there were widespread fears Siemens would pull out of the region and take its factory elsewhere. With the massive blade looming large in the background, Jason Speedy, director of the blade factory in Hull, assures me that isn’t the case.

“The Brexit decision has made no difference. We have made our investment decision, so Siemens, together with the Association of British Ports, has put in £310m. It’s all full steam ahead.”

As Hull becomes the country’s cultural hub for the next few months, the hope is that its residents stop looking back and start looking forward.

For Professor Lee, though, until there is a complete change in the power structures that run the country, the north-south divide will remain – with or without the EU. “The way you kill nostalgia is to have something new,” he said. “The reason why people here are nostalgic is because there is nothing to replace it with.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.