The debates that ECFR and Le Monde jointly hosted on 3rd April were telling: whether they are for or against, all candidates (or their representatives) talked about Europe. It has become the crux of the foreign policy debate in this presidential campaign: all roads lead to it; everything stems from it.
All candidates respond to an international situation deemed unstable and dangerous, and seek to address a popular demand for safety. Whether they deal with identity, the economy, employment or defence, their answers all have to do with more or less Europe. A similar divide is found between those who are keen to open up to the rest of the world and those who seek to turn inwards, whether in terms of trade or migration and refugees.
Concerning France’s armed operations abroad, it seems likely there will be a change from the policy pursued by both Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy. A large majority of the public approves of the interventions in Syria and Mali. Yet the candidates, while agreed on the need for increased defence spending, warn against the risks associated with intervention. They stress that the use of force must be coupled with a political strategy. Where the outgoing president stressed firmness, the candidates call for rebalancing alliances and for more dialogue with key partners. Russian president Vladimir Putin is unanimously seen as an important one, but there was also emphasis by some on Turkey’s Erdogan, Iran’s Rouhani, America’s Trump and China’s Xi Jinping.
This search for safety also applies to the global economy. There is ubiquitous concern for control of foreign trade, for economic and social rules, with fear of a decline in French power. Some feel nostalgia for “the world we have lost”. Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon not only want to kick out all incumbents, both also want to withdraw from everything: the EU, NATO, and CETA and TTIP trade agreements. Of course, there remains a difference between Mélenchon’s socialist overtones and Le Pen’s nationalism.
Other candidates reject the turn inwards, even if they differ in their priorities. According to Emmanuel Macron and even more so François Fillon, France has to reform itself first, just as Sweden, Germany, Spain and Portugal did. Benoît Hamon wants to reform Europe first, moving towards a European democracy of the peoples. Is he realistic enough? Equally, can Fillon really claim to be a convinced European when he seeks to return to national governments key EU decisions?
All this makes them “excellent Frenchmen”, who show faith in their country’s potential dynamism. But they also agree on the importance of dialogue with Germany, especially now that the UK is leaving the EU. Even the candidates who wish to reduce France’s compliance with European rules still profess dialogue with Berlin over conflict. Some seek to influence Germany’s European policy; others posit that the Germans will in any case need the French in Europe.
A return to conflicts and tensions among European nations would indeed be a lot worse than the existing disagreements, which are being dealt with according to common rules in the framework institutions. Competitive devaluation, fiscal dumping and even territorial tensions (from the Carpathian Mountains to Gibraltar) are all revealing cases, and not fixtures of our imagination. In this sense the EU is the worst system–except for all the others.
All candidates express the Gallic urge to maintain France’s role in the world. Donald Trump’s uncertain directions have so far muted the debate over Atlanticism. No candidate calls for alignment with the US, simply because there is no line to follow. Thus a Gaullian approach to foreign relations is currently prevalent.
Yet for some candidates, the world will always be shaped by great powers, and France should play a balancing role between the US, Russia and China, with little positive expectations of on the future. Others argue that independence does not prevent close cooperation in the UN–on climate issues, for instance–but first and foremost within the European Union, which has become even more complex and intricate. They argue that a united Europe is still the best way to be heard and to promote our vision for the world order.
We prefer the latter over the former. Fortunately, several candidates still hold this line, despite the ubiquitous predictions about the decline of France and the coming collapse of Europe.
This op-ed was first published in Le Monde on 10th April 2017.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.