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25 August 2021

Why the world is becoming more French

From industrial policy and nuclear power to "strategic autonomy" and the 35-hour week, the 2020s are popularising many French instincts about world affairs and the state.

By Jeremy Cliffe

For decades France has been the red cape to the bull of liberal Atlanticist orthodoxy. Lukewarm on a transatlantic alliance others treated as sacrosanct, ­wedded to Gaullist multipolarity in a ­seemingly unipolar age, enduringly statist in defiance of Hayekian economics, heavy-handedly dirigiste in an age of decentralisation and networked power, at points it has appeared like the village in the Astérix books; the stubborn Gallic holdout against the end of history.

“Buy Taiwan, hold Italy, sell France” advised Thomas Friedman in The Lexus and the Olive Tree, his 1999 paean to liberal ­globalisation. Around the time of the Iraq War, the French were dismissed as “Old Europe” by Donald Rumsfeld, then the US ­secretary of defence, and “cheese eating surrender monkeys” elsewhere. “If the French social model is so great, why is the country in flames?” sighed Peter Mandelson in 2005 as riots gripped Parisian suburbs.

Despair about France often tracks liberal hubris in the Anglo-Saxon world. It was in 2012 – the year of peak Osbornism in Britain and of the Cameron-Obama “bromance” – that the Economist declared France “a country in denial” in an editorial tutting: “French voters are notorious for their belief in the state’s benevolence”. It was in 2017 – with the UK and US reeling from Brexit and Donald Trump respectively – that the ­revisionist case for optimism about France, now under the leadership of Emmanuel Macron, started appearing once more.

Recent events have reminded me of this pattern. As I predicted he would in this ­column last October, Joe Biden has shocked US allies by preserving elements of Trump’s “America First” foreign policy. Europeans were blindsided by the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

As Tony Blair wrote recently, “for Britain, out of Europe and suffering the end of the Afghanistan mission by our greatest ally with little or no consultation, we have serious reflection to do”. Armin Laschet, a candidate for German chancellor, decries Biden’s “debacle” and says that “the EU has to be in a position to act without the US”.

Yet one capital appeared less shocked than others: Paris. Gloomy about the US’s ability to orchestrate an orderly withdrawal, France began to evacuate Afghans who had worked for its forces in May, and had pulled out its last combat troops in 2012. Macron has long propounded “strategic autonomy”, a serious European ability to act in the world without relying on the US; in 2019 he went as far as calling Nato “braindead”. The Afghanistan mess is giving such ideas new momentum in European capitals where they once prompted derision.

[see also: Afghanistan’s plight and its contested future are a reassertion of the brutal realities of geography]

To be sure, for now Europe remains too comfortable beneath the US security umbrella to seek a meaningful autonomous replacement. Yet that does not preclude gradual change. The EU tends to evolve in the heat of crisis. It is not too hard to imagine crises over the next decade gradually transforming its existing patchwork of task forces, cooperation frameworks and joint procurement initiatives into something closer to a E­uropean army by the 2030s. The point is the direction, the zeitgeist; and the zeitgeist is becoming markedly more French.

Foreign policy is not the only such topic. France’s love of nuclear power has given it one of the lowest per-capita carbon emission levels of any rich economy; others such as Poland are now looking to follow its example. French industrial policy, once deeply unfashionable, is taking hold elsewhere as even Anglo-Saxon governments recognise the value of a strategic state in an era of pandemics, climate crisis and geopolitical competition. Big infrastructure projects are back, with the UK and US embarking on their first serious high-speed rail networks as France marks 40 years of the TGV. France’s 35-hour week looks less outlandish in an age when many are exploring four-day working weeks (France now has a higher GDP per capita than the UK and its productivity per hour worked is around a third higher).

France is also ageing more slowly than some of its neighbours thanks to generous maternity and childcare policies that have kept the birth rate among Europe’s highest. Recently, Macron has essentially subjected non-vaccinated French citizens to a new lockdown, which has prompted a surge in vaccinations. Identity cards and gendarmerie-style policing have certain benefits in an age of crisis.

Diplomatically, too, France has underrated strengths. Brexit has led to it overtaking Britain as Europe’s top destination for foreign investment; Germany’s next chancellor will be both weaker and more temperamentally pro-French than Angela Merkel; and Italy’s Mario Draghi makes a natural Macron ally. If he secures re-election next April, France’s president will be the pre-eminent leader in Europe.

None of which is to say that France doesn’t have its problems. The country’s anti-Jihadist missions in the Sahel risk becoming its own Afghanistan. At home, deep divides persist: between depressed suburbs and charmed city centres, provincial gilets jaunes and urban Macronistes; between a culture of secularism and Muslim citizens trying to reconcile faith and belonging in a society too often blind to racism. A win by Marine Le Pen next year is not probable, but remains entirely possible.

But the picture is more complicated, and becoming more so, than Anglo-Saxon despair about France often allows. As old liberal orthodoxies are challenged and rewritten, so too are some of the French stereotypes about a dirigisme once seen as outdated, a sclerosis once considered endemic and an independent-mindedness about foreign policy once dismissed as tedious Gaullist chest-puffing. The world is changing. And by and large – whisper it softly, mes amis – it is becoming more French. 

[see also: France’s silent majority: How a political class was left behind]

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This article appears in the 25 Aug 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Retreat