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France's influence in Europe: Can we still believe in it?
The visit of the UK Prime Minister and his family to the German chancellor in her country residence outside Berlin has been interpreted as a snub to the French President. The possibility of a growing alliance between David Cameron and Angela Merkel casts a dark shadow over the Franco-German relationship. And some of the French socialists who have been critical of Angela Merkel's "selfish intransigence", may push the German chancellor towards changing her strategic partner in Europe. Is this a sign of France's decreasing influence in Europe?
In a draft resolution, leaked over the weekend, that will be presented at a June brainstorming party conference on Europe, a few members of the socialist party have once again attacked European austerity. Accoridng to them, "The European project is now scarred by an alliance of convenience between the Thatcherite approach of the current British Prime Minister - who only wants, according to a rebate and an "à la carte" Europe - and the selfish intransigence of Chancellor Merkel who thinks of nothing else but the interests of German savers, the trade balance recorded in Berlin and her electoral future".
After this strongly worded criticism of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's focus on austerity, Claude Bartelone, the socialist National Assembly speaker, raised the prospect of a "clash" with Germany. Immediatly, the government, under the helm of Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, stepped in to calm these Germanophobic hints. But François Hollande's voice has, nevertheless, remained unheard. This silence, revealing a tacit acceptance of the anti-Merkel offensive, may announce a definitve divorce between France and Germany. François Hollande, who has lost the battle against Angela Merkel's austerity vision of Europe, seems to have made the risky choice of Germanophobia to regain the confidence of French voters.
The French President's popularity rating has fallen faster than that of any other president of the 5th Republic. Since his election a year ago his rating has gone from 55% down to 24% in a record time according to a SOFRES poll. By radicalising his tone towards Berlin, François Hollande hopes to win back his (far) left electorate. Grappling against Anglo-Saxon austerity is a way of readdressing one of his failed promises: to spell the end of the Merkozy alliance (between Angela Merkel and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy). However, Mr Hollande might be betting on the wrong horse. Since he backed Peer Steinbrüch, the SPD candidate running for the German elections in September, Angela Merkel has been distinctively cooler about the Franco-German relationship. Is it tit for tat on François Hollande's part? After all, Mrs Merkel backed Nicolas Sarkozy in his re-election bid in 2012. But, if the Christian Democratic Chancellor is re-elected, François Hollande might find himself even more isolated. Already, even though they are maintaining their formal relationship, they cannot find any common ground to work on right now, leaving open the possibility of a Franco-German divorce.
Since Robert Schuman, former French Foreign Affairs Minister, proposed on 9 May 1950 that the "Franco-German production of coal and steel as a whole (should) be placed under a common High Authority", politicians on each side of the Rhine have made the Franco-German alliance the driving force behind European integration. In 1963, Charles De Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer signed the Elysée Treaty, which formalised cooperation between the two countries on defence, foreign affairs and economic issues. Valery Giscard d'Estaing and Helmut Schmidt commemorated together the 70th years of the 14-18 war and François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl holding hands to commemorate Verdun (1917) in September 1984 remains one of the most moving and significant images of Franco-German reconciliation. Common monetary policies then kept the Franco-German show on the road until 1999 when Gerhard Schröder and Jacques Chirac launched the euro.
Under Nicolas Sarkozy's presidency (2007-2012), Franco-German relationships, after a hostile beginning, entered an unlikely marriage of convenience around a few principles: moderate employment policies, a strict budgetary policy and a fight against inflation. Today, whilst François Hollande will celebrate his 1st anniversary as president on 6 May 2013, the "Merkhollande" couple (Angela Merkel and François Hollande) has reached an all time low perhaps even beyond recovery. Indeed, the German Chancellor seems to prefer her conservative ally, Great Britain, even though they do not share the same vision regarding Europe's future.
At the exact moment when the British prime minister, David Cameron, is asking for a rebate and renegotiation of the European treaties, Angela Merkel is getting closer to the United Kingdom. This alliance is surprising given that Mrs Merkel is in favour of further European integration. Nevertheless, both leaders seem to be finding common ground, not the least: in respect of continuing austerity and major structural reforms. The invitation for Mr Cameron and his family to stay in the elegant 18th century castle in Meseberg, North of Berlin, was intended to underline the close ties between Angela Merkel and the British Prime Minister. On the agenda for this special visit were: the preparation of next month's European Council and the UK presidency of the next G8. The Heads of State also discussed economic and political issues in Europe. Mr Cameron needs Mrs Merkel's support to re-negotiate the British EU membership deal, but the German chancellor tried to persuade her British counterpart to consider more Europhile-leaning views. Nevertheless, she had previously made clear that she was ready to discuss with David Cameron his referendum on UK withdrawal from the EU. Amongst the notable non-attenders at this mutual love-in: François Hollande. France's isolation could have major consequences for Europe's future, as Mrs Merkel will not be able to count either on Mr Cameron or François Hollande to pursue the reforms that a competitive Europe requires.
In the absence of strong Franco-German ties, François Hollande could have pulled out all the stops to cosy up with his eternal love/hate neighbour, Great Britain. But as soon as the socialist leader came to power, Mr Cameron made clear things would not be smooth. He announced he would "roll out a red carpet" for the French entrepreneurs who wanted to escape the higher taxes. Interspersed with increasingly tongly-worded Economist covers, Franco-British relations went from bad to worse. In the wrost moments, François Hollande snubbed David Cameron during a European summit in February of this year. The 27 members were preparing a compromise on the austerity budget when Mr Hollande declined a conciliatiory meeting with Mr Cameron because of his already heavy schedule. In the meantime, the French President was getting closer to the Italian Mario Monti and the Spanish Mariano Rajoy, a dubious strategic decision given both countries' poor economic situation. France's positioning as a spokesman of Southern countries woes against the nascent Germano-British couple, could, even though their claims are legitimate, mark the death-knell of France's influence in Europe. Recently, a report published by Germany's Economy Ministry foresees France as the next "sick man of Europe".
Former French Prime Minister and current Mayor of Bordeaux, Alain Juppé, condemned François Hollande's attitude in an interview with the newspaper Le Monde, : "the fantasy that he could count on Mario Monti's support to make Mrs Merkel bow down to them. What a mistake: Germany no longer trusts us and we have lost all our credibility to start a tough dialogue with her. France is totally isolated and the President finds himself in a very tricky situation. He has to cut down the deficit without having the growth necessary to do so, and he cannot increase taxes either. The only solution is to cap public expenditure, which is extraordinarily difficult: 60 billion euros to find in five years, that means implementing drastic State reforms, changing family allowances, stopping lying to the French regarding retirement, cutting back on unemployment benefits and on healthcare."
Beyond its isolation on the European scene, France, from a German and English viewpoint, is falling into a vicious circle of decline. Its economy is in recession, unemployment figures are exploding, internal divisions are soaring and the political elite has been undermined by the Cahuzac fraud scandal. Faced with this critical situation, that some describe as "pre-revolutionary", François Hollande's intemperance provokes touchy reactions from all sides of the political spectrum. The French are very unhappy eith each other, radicalising their opinions. This was particularly noticeable during the anti-gay marriage protests. Could these be the signs of a profound crisis hitting France not only economically but also socially? A real time bomb? If emotions replace calm political debate then where could things end up?