France and the European Union after Macron

The two mainstream parties, which have marked the history of the Fifth Republic have been both heavily defeated.The historic  Franco-German couple at the helm of the European engine is adrift. The euro-area can hardly continue to mask its crisis.

1. This time the French elections haven't delivered a surprising or unexpected outcome, as was the case with Trump and Brexit. In the first round, the forecasts were fulfilled with almost millimeter precision. Emmanuel Macron, who came first with an almost three-point advantage over Marine Le Pen, will May 7 contend with her the presidency of the Republic.

Macron, 39 years old, never elected to any public office, will possibly be the eighth president of the Fifth Republic, as successor to, amongst others, Charles de Gaulle and François Mitterand, to just name two protagonists of European history during the second half of the 20th century.

So, in keeping with the predictions, nothing new under the spring sky of Paris? No, this cannot be said. The opposite is true. A powerful seismic shock has undermined the foundations of the Fifth Republic. The two parties that have marked its history have been both heavily defeated. Francois Fillon, the candidate of the rightwing Republican party, has won just a fifth of the votes, being overrun by the radical rightwing of Marine Le Pen’s National Front.

On the other hand, the Socialist Party, once lead by Mitterrand, Delors and Jospin, came out pretty much from the scene. The majority of Socialists voted for Macron, who proudly proclaimed himself "neither right nor left", while another significant part voted for the radical left ressemblement of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who, with almost 20 percent of the votes more than tripled the humiliating 6.4 per cent gained by Benoît Hamon, the candidate of the Socialist party.

2.   It has been argued that the French elections have been a referendum on the European Union. From this point of view, the outcome could be read as a true upheaval of the relationship between France and the European project. Let’s come back, briefly to some historical aspects of the French-German partnership.

The European unification project began with Maurice Schumann and Jean Monnet when, at the beginning of the 1950’s National Front National Front Fifty’s  they made-up the Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), progenitor of the European economic community (EEC).

The French initiative then seemed to be dictated purely by economic interests, since France needed Ruhr's coal for its development after the devastation of the war. In1957, the ECSC was followed by the European Common Market, which for the same six founding countries (Italy and Benelux along with France and Germany) had to be the multiplier of economic growth in the devastated Europe of the Second World War. The economic interests were important. However, a pure economic interpretation of these events would be misleading.

The political dimension of the French initiative became apparent with Charles de Gaulle, the father of the Fifth Republic. France was one of the five standing members of the UN Security Council together with the United States, Great Britain, Russia and China; and it had also become the fourth nuclear power.

In the Gaullist design, France's "grandeur” coincided, in this case, with an ambitious continental political project. He imagined a fully-fledged Europe freed by American hegemony (It was no coincidence that the Community project excluded Great Britain, considered an appendix of American power politics).

The European Community also should have managed autonomous relations with the USSR, interlocking, as appropriate, a conflicting attitude with a collaborative one. And it was is no coincidence that, in the design drawn up by the General, one day the European community would extend from the Atlantic to the Urals.

Even without regard to this visionary perspective, de Gaulle clearly linked the actual European project to the realization of a fundamental collaboration between France and Germany. Summing up, the Franco-German couple had to be the engine that would have driven the European project.

It was in this framework that the special relationship with Germany took on the colors of a personal relationship between the leaders of the two countries. So one could see the austere de Gaulle inviting the old German chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, as a quasi-familiar guest in his private home in Colombey-les-Deux-Églises, away from the lights and diplomatic rites of the Elysée Palace.

A new chapter in European history was opened, after the two world wars that had seen France and Germany standing on opposing sides. The new projected Europe had its undisputed leadership in France, while Germany was assigned the role of co-pilot.

This special relationship was not just the occasional result of de Gaulle's political imagination. In a recent interview (L'Espresso), Giscard d'Estaing recalled how it had become customary to meet with Helmut Schmidt, the successor of Willy Brandt at the German Chancellery, before the meetings of the European Council, to discuss the agenda and outline the most relevant  Council conclusions.

Both French and German politics have been marked over the decades by the alternation between the two major parties in each country respectively. But the alternation never interfered with the peculiarity of the bilateral relationships.

3.   The initiative once again belonged to France. But this time the collapse of the Soviet Union had dramatically changed the scenario. German unification took all of Europe by surprise, and also the United States. Above all, it was intended to change relationships within the Franco-German couple. Unified Germany was no longer a Western European border: suddenly, the overturning of European history placed it at the center of the continent.

The commitment to the euro at the Maastricht conference in 1992 was the price France imposed on Germany in return for the unification of Germany - the unification that Kohl wanted to accelerate beyond any forecast, initially created an uproar at the Elysée and in many European capitals, as well as in Washington.

The move to the single currency was once again a success under the French leadership o f Mitterand and Delors, however a fatal success. A part of the German economic and political elite led by the Bundesbank, was opposed to the relinquishment of the DM. After the 1922-23 monetary catastrophe, caused by hyperinflation, the DM had, in fact, become a second flag of Germany.

In effect, the single currency was a trick that masked a profound economic asymmetry between Germany and the majority of EU Member States. Germany had become the second western economic power and the fourth one in the world after the United States, Japan and China. By contrast, France could not keep up with the semifixed exchange rate that governed EMS, the European monetary system.

In 1992, the whole European monetary system went into crisis: the British pound, the Italian lira, the Spanish peseta along with other European currencies,  were devalued under the speculative attack, while the French franc had been saved through the German support. It was apparent that the differences among the European nations were the reflection of a different economic standard of the Union’s member states, making the monetary unification a risky operation.
With the adoption of the euro French hegemony was over. Once the single currency became a basic economic engine, the German role was dramatically strengthened. Any new European treaty introduced even more stringent rules in the making of the fiscal and economic policy.

When the 2008 American crisis hit the European Union, Berlin seized the double stick of austerity and structural reforms under Brussels’ mantle. Yet the Franco-German couple promptly reappeared when crucial decisions had to be assumed.

Now, France was badly weakened by the crisis, but Nicolas Sarkozy liked presenting himself as a strict controller of the member states’ behavior. Separate meetings of the Franco-German couple kept going ahead, at times irritating the European partners, as in the aftermath of the Merkel -Sarkozy bilateral summit in Deauville in the autumn of 2010, on the eve of a major European Council.

The turning point was the suddenly convened meeting in Cannes by Sarkozy and Merkel at the beginning of  November  2011 with the attendance of Barroso, the European Commission President. Greece was the issue. In the midst of the Greek dramatic crisis, the chief of the government Papandreou had called for a popular referendum on whether to accept or not the conditions set by the European authorities for a new bailout. The decision was intended to be a way to temper the wave of popular protests throughout Greece, and to try to get a mandate to negotiate an acceptable bailout agreement with the European commission.  

Sarkozy and Merkel summoned Papandreou to Cannes on the eve of a G20 meeting, asking him to immediately withdraw the popular referendum. Greece had to accept the conditions set by the European authorities or had to leave the eurozone. Papandreou’s back was up against the wall. A week later he resigned. France and Germany had already identified the new head of the Greek government as Lucas Papademos, a former vice-president of the ECB. As we know, the Greek crisis was not only unresolved, but the stranglehold conditions that had been imposed on it exacerbated the crisis that continues to wreak havoc six years after Cannes.

In fact, Greece had a double bad luck. On the one hand, it was too weak to oppose resistance. On the other, it had to serve as an example to any other Member State that would have rebelled against the eurozone’s stances. Italy and Spain were on the first line. Under the pressure of the European authorities, José Luis Zapatero, the Spanish Prime Minister resigned a month after Papandreou.  Mariano Rajoy of the popular Party, supported by Berlin and Paris, easily won the elections, and promptly imposed, through decrees, the harsh measures of austerity and structural reforms asked by the European Commission.

The Italian case had broken out in advance with the infamous letter signed by Jean-Claude Trichet, the outgoing French president of the ECB, and Mario Draghi, his named successor. The letter - sent secretly but immediately leaked to the Italian press - indicated a detailed ultra-conservative government program, that no normal, democratically elected government could have fulfilled.

Under the attack of the financial markets, the spread - the interest rate differential on bond issues with respect to the German interest rate – exploded. The Berlusconi government was forced to throw in the towel. Mario Monti was designated to govern Italy enjoying the confidence of Berlin and the European Commission of which he had been a Commissioner. Monti, with the support of Giorgio Napolitano, the president of the Republic, formed a government of technicians supported by the Democratic Party as well as by Forza Italia lead by Berlusconi.

Within two months, Germany and France, with the compliance of the European Commission and the ECB, had decided on the economic and social policy of the two major eurozone countries after Germany and France. And also decided the fate of their governments.

4.   The mask has finally fallen together with the clamorous defeat of François Hollande - the only president of the Fifth Republic's history, who had to renounce his bid for a second term for excessive unpopularity.

The young Macron is undoubtedly endowed with a smart talent. In a short span of years, he went from Rothschild's bank to Hollande’s government first as economic adviser, then as minister of economy. He was prompted to abandon the boat when it was drifting, to found “En Marche!” his own personal "neither right nor left" movement.

To gain the Elysée, Macron will need in the second round of what remains of the Socialist Party which, according to pollsters, will give him two-thirds of the votes, a dismal 6.4 percent of its score. It is also expected, according to the forecasts, that about half the votes of the Mélenchon radical left, will choose by default voting to Macron. But even this could not be enough, without the substantial support from the Fillon's ultraconservative right. Considering that at least 15 per cent of the voters will abstain in the second round, Macron is going to eventually overtake Marine Le Pen. So the oracle says.

Once at the Elysée, he will become the French partner of Angela Merkel. That is, a Chancellor, who with her three accomplished terms has already matched the length of Adenauer’s and Kohl's chancellery. And if, according to the latest opinion polls, she is going to get a fourth term, she will reach a primacy that has no precedent except for Bismarck in the second half of the nineteenth century.

5.   In Berlin and Brussels they all look confidently relieved. But of the old Franco-German couple there is nothing but the faded fiction that has led to the fiasco of Hollande’s socialist presidency.

In any case, the eurozone is saved and the undisputable dominance of  Germany will hardly keep the mask of the old Franco-German couple. France almost ten years after its explosion has not yet emerged from the crisis. The eurozone continues grotesquely to beat the pace of growth in terms of decimals, with an average unemployment of 10 percent, which is the highest in the history of the EU, and which is more or less double in Greece, Spain and ... in the Mezzogiorno.

The question that deserves to be put forward is: how much longer? But the European protocol doesn’t want this question to be asked. Whoever should raise their voice is labeled a populist, no matter whether they are on the right or the left: Le Pen or Mélenchon, Pablo Iglesias, Grillo or Salvini.

The hourglass of history has to stop because the establishment can continue to govern the decline of the European planet. With the remarkable exception of Germany, which remains the world’s fourth economic power, at the head of a lacerated Europe without a compass. And without a goal. The question remains: how much longer?

Antonio Lettieri

Editor of Insight and President of CISS - Center for International Social Studies (Roma). He was National Secretary of CGIL; Member of ILO Governing Body, Member of the OECD's Trade Union Advisory Council and Advisor of Labor Minister for European Affairs.(

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