Merci, mon Général, bonjour Monsieur Monnet

Throughout the Eurozone crisis, France has been well served by its decisive presidential system. But as thoughts turn to reforming the way the Eurozone works, France must come to terms with the power implications of a more federal system.  

France’s Gaullist legacy – the singular concentration of power in the hands of its president – has served it well in its handling of the eurozone crisis. However inadequate the collective response until now, it would have been far worse had France’s debate been as agitated and its policy as uncertain as Germany’s. Yet now, the Elysée may be on a collision course with Berlin – where the deepening of the crisis has sparked a revival of federalist thinking on eurozone governance. If the euro is to survive, the unfettered control France’s chief executive wields over economic policy must end.

Nicolas Sarkozy deserves credit: he set a clear course and ordered his allies to stick to the script, refraining from public anger at Germany’s convoluted policies. Aided by a French public largely willing to support Greece, François Hollande, the newly anointed socialist presidential candidate, has shown similar statesmanship.

Despite approaching elections and dismal popularity ratings, Mr Sarkozy benefits from a French constitution – tailored in 1958 for General de Gaulle – that makes France’s president the most powerful of any western democracy. This centralised system has proved far more efficient in this crisis than Germany’s polycentric power structure. It has generated stable policy and muted public debate – instilling confidence where troubled German politics have stirred market and political uncertainty.

Yet France’s policy of constructive restraint has now run its course. The deepening of the crisis has hastened a profound change underway in Germany – where ideas on endowing the eurozone with new powers, under joint Eurozone parliamentary control, are gaining momentum.

As instability threatens its immediate neighbourghood, the reunited nation is ending its flirtation with soft nationalism and reviving the euro-federalist thinking that formed the ideological basis of West Germany’s post-war success. A new generation of German politicians is coming to realise that even after 1989, the old axiom holds: politically and financially, no investment offers Germans a better return than investing in a stable European order.

But if a federal organisation involving joint institutions becomes Germany’s blueprint for redesigning the Eurozone, that will clash with the Elysee’s favoured approach – in which gatherings of national leaders remain arbiters of Eurozone policy. The weakness of this system is clear by now: even under strengthened common rules, 17 national budgetary policies and electoral cycles will still obey their own dynamics unless they are subject to a focused, consistent, and intrusive authority. Mr Sarkozy knows a club of national leaders will never take on that role. Yet he has acted as standard-bearer of a Gaullist tradition that aims to protect presidential powers from European meddling, whatever the cost to collective European efficiency.

Mr Sarkozy’s re-election is anything but assured and Gaullism is not the only tradition informing French thinking on Europe. Mr Hollande has expressed a preference for a more federal way of running the Eurozone. However, mindful that the quarrel over the European Constitution nearly tore his party apart, he has avoided debate on which limitations to his presidential power he would accept. The result is that the biggest issue of the day has hardly featured in the campaign.

Yet France’s next president must have a mandate for fundamental Eurozone reform. He must prepare for a day when he shares important parts of fiscal and budgetary power with revamped Eurozone authorities – likely to include a parliamentary assembly which could be embedded in the European Parliament.

Such a redistribution of power would usher in a difficult but still gradual change for Germany. It would be a radical transformation for France and its decider-in-chief. But the euro’s predicament leaves no choice. France must move beyond the legacy of the Fifth Republic and learn to countenance a more federal way of organising power. Merci, mon Général, bonjour, Monsieur Monnet.

This article first appeared in the Financial Times.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

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