the perfect storm

Image: Mikhail Nilov
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By TIMOFEY BORDACHEV*

Emmanuel Macron may be a clown, but he is a dangerous clown

France's position on the world stage is quite strange today: a country with a solid nuclear arsenal, but which has lost all ability to influence its surroundings. In recent decades, Paris has lost what was left of its former greatness on the world stage, ceded its leading position in the European Union to Germany and completely abandoned the principles necessary for its internal development. In other words, the protracted crisis of the Fifth Republic has reached a stage where the lack of solutions to the various problems that have been going on for a long time is turning into a true identity crisis.

The reasons for this situation are clear, but the outcome is difficult to predict. And the pathetic behavior of President Emmanuel Macron is just a consequence of the general impasse in French politics, as well as the very appearance of this figure at the head of the State, which used to be led by big names in world politics, such as Charles de Gaulle or François Mitterrand.

The last time Paris demonstrated the ability to act on its own in a truly important decision was in 2002-2003. At that time, she opposed US plans to illegally invade Iraq. French diplomacy, then led by the aristocrat Dominique de Villepin, managed to form a coalition with Germany and Russia and deprive the American attack of any international legitimacy.

The US attempt to combine in its figure dominant power capabilities and a decisive influence on the right to use them in world politics, that is, to establish a unipolar world order, has failed. This was denied them at the energetic instigation of France, and so important a step in the creation of a democratic world order will be credited to Paris by the historians of the future.

But it ended there. The moral victory at the UN Security Council in February-March 2003 played the same role in the fate of France as the bloody victory in the First World War, after which the country could no longer remain one of the great world powers. Not only harsh external circumstances, but also the rapid plunge into internal problems, which had not been resolved for almost 20 years, contributed to a steeper decline.

Successive presidents were initially unable to adapt the country to challenges, the causes of which were largely beyond their reach. So much so that, in the mid-2000s, there was a generational change in politics, with the coming to power of people who had neither the experience of the Cold War nor the “education” of the generation of leaders that founded modern France.

The “perfect storm” was a combination of several factors. First, society was changing more rapidly than in any other part of Europe and the political system of the Fifth Republic was becoming obsolete. Second, there was a loss of control over the basic parameters of economic policy, which were increasingly determined by the country's participation in the Common Market and, more importantly, the eurozone. Third, the fading of the dream of a political union within the European Union led to the re-emergence of Germany, a country that did not have full sovereignty to undertake such an important project alone. Lastly, the world was changing rapidly. It was no longer centered in Europe, which meant there was no place for France on the list of great powers.

The search for attention from the man who is now formally at the head of the French State are just personal symptoms of the crisis in which the country finds itself. As a result, everything is beyond the control of the current government and the number of related issues turns anger into meaningless hysteria. Small intrigues not only accompany big politics, as they always do, but replace it. The principle of “not being, but appearing to be” becomes the main engine of state action. France can no longer find a way out of the systemic crisis through the historically more familiar route – the revolutionary one.

In fact, France is a country that has never been characterized by internal stability. Since the Great French Revolution of 1789, accumulated internal tensions have traditionally found an outlet in revolutionary events, accompanied by bloodshed and major adjustments in the political system. France's great achievements in political philosophy and literature are a product of this constant revolutionary tension – creative thinking works best in moments of crisis, anticipating them or overcoming them.

It is precisely due to its revolutionary nature that France has been able to produce ideas that have been applied on a global scale, elevating its presence in world politics well above what it would deserve. These ideas include the construction of European integration according to the model of the French school of government, the oligarchic conspiracy of the richest and most armed powers, known as the G-7, and several others.

In the 20th century, two world wars became an outlet for the revolutionary energy of the people – France was on the winning side of one of them and badly lost the second, but miraculously found itself among the subsequent victors. Then came the collapse of the empire, but the losses this caused were partially offset by the neocolonial methods applied throughout Western Europe to its former overseas possessions.

In Europe itself, France until recently played a leading role in defining important issues such as foreign trade policy and technical assistance programs. The main reason for the end of France's era of revolutionary choices was the institutions of the collective West – NATO and European integration – that it helped create.

Gradually but consistently, they reduced the scope for independent decision-making by the French political elite. At the same time, these restrictions were not simply imposed from outside; were the product of the solutions that Paris found to maintain its influence in world politics and the economy, to benefit from the strengthening of the economy and the status of Germany and explore, together with Berlin, the poor east and south of Europe.

But not everything was under control from the start. The foreign policy upheavals of the first half of the last century spared the country further revolutions, but left it morally exhausted and humiliatingly dependent on the United States, which the French traditionally despise. Even today, unlike other Western Europeans, they feel uncomfortable with American hegemony.

And this only adds to the drama of the situation in Paris, which can neither resist nor fully accept US oppression. The period of Emmanuel Macron's presidency saw the cruelest lesson taught to the French by their overseas partners: in September 2021, the Australian government rejected a possible order for a series of submarines from Paris, in favor of a new alliance with the United States and Great Britain.

France was unable to make any foreign policy countermove.

The era of comparative calm and dynamism of the 1950s provided the material basis for the colossal system of social guarantees that most outside observers associate with modern France. A stable retirement system, a huge public sector and employers' obligations to their workers are the foundations of the welfare state that has been created. As human memory is short and contemporaries tend to absolutize their impressions, this is how we see France: well fed and well maintained.

The stability and prosperity of the majority of the population are attributes of a relatively short period of French history – no more than 40 years of good times (1960s-1990s), during which the political system of the Fifth Republic was created and flourished. Irreversible processes in the economy began with the global crisis of the late 2000s and gradually led to problems common in the West, such as the erosion of the middle class and the decline in the state's capacity to maintain a system of social obligations. In the mid-2010s, France became the European champion in terms of the economy's total debt, reaching 280% of GDP, and public debt is currently 110% of GDP. The main reason for these statistics is the huge social expenditure, which leads to chronic budget deficits.

The inability to resolve these problems, combined with the destruction of the traditional structure of society, led to the crisis of the party system. The traditional parties – the socialists and the republicans – are currently close to, or have already crossed, the threshold of organizational collapse. In the new economy – with the contraction of industry, the growth of the financial and service sectors and the individualization of citizens' participation in economic life – the social base of forces based on coherent political programs is diminishing.

One result of this process was the electoral victory of Emmanuel Macron, the then little-known candidate of the “Avante!” movement, in May 2017. Since then, his party has been renamed twice: “Forward, Republic!” in 2017 and “Renaissance” from May 5, 2022. Emmanuel Macron himself was re-elected president in 2022, again defeating right-wing candidate Marine Le Pen, herself a outsider of the traditional system.

During Emmanuel Macron's time at the Élysée Palace, the headquarters of the head of state since 1848, there were two types of news coming from France to the outside world. First, reports of mass demonstrations that resulted in no change. Second, loud statements about foreign policy that were never followed by equally decisive action.

A year after Emmanuel Macron came to power, the country was shaken by the so-called “yellow vests” – citizens angry with plans to increase the price of diesel and, subsequently, with all government initiatives in the social sphere.

In particular, proposals to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64. In early 2023, the government addressed this issue again and new mass demonstrations swept the country. In the summer of that year, the suburbs of large cities, largely inhabited by descendants of Arabs and Africans from former colonies, went up in flames. The majority of protesters were second and third generation immigrants, demonstrating the total failure of integration policies in French society. In all cases, the official workers' representatives – the unions and the Socialist Party – were unable to play a significant role in controlling the protests or negotiating with the authorities.

As a result, the government raised the retirement age by two years, Emmanuel Macron's greatest achievement to date in the area of ​​social security reform. Between the two cycles of unrest came the coronavirus pandemic, which provided authorities with a few years of relative calm almost everywhere. The main result of French domestic politics in recent years has been the lack of significant results from the protests and serious reforms, which, for all intents and purposes, the country desperately needs. Apathy is becoming the main feature of public life in France.

An active foreign policy could partially compensate for domestic stagnation. But this requires money and at least relative independence. Currently, France has neither. This is probably why the amount of direct aid that Paris granted to the Kiev regime remains the lowest of all developed Western countries – 3 billion euros, that is, ten times less than Germany, for example. In fact, it is precisely this inability to invest more seriously in the Ukrainian conflict that many associate with Emmanuel Macron's emotional rhetoric, both in relation to Russia and his supposed allies in Berlin.

Paris more than makes up for its lack of money with loud statements. In 2019, Macron caught the world's attention when he said that NATO had suffered from “brain death”. This, of course, aroused emotions among Russian and Chinese observers, but did not lead to any practical action. At the time, we simply didn't know the new French president well, for whom the link between words and their consequences not only doesn't exist, but doesn't even seem necessary in principle.

It was quite amusing to see French diplomats and experts call on Russia to limit its public and private presence in Africa between 2020 and 2021. Emmanuel Macron himself has consistently scaled back France's commitments on the continent throughout his time at the Élysée Palace. In the summer of 2023, Niger's new military government responded calmly to calls from Paris for African countries to overthrow it. Unable to influence the situation in the country, France closed its embassy on January 2, 2024, finally recognizing the failure of its policy in the region.

However, to compensate for the de facto withdrawal from a region that has traditionally provided the French economy with cheap raw materials, Emmanuel Macron is looking for new and promising partnerships. Security agreements were recently signed with authorities in Kiev and Moldova and talks are ongoing with authorities in Armenia. But none of this is producing practical results. Ukraine is firmly controlled by the Americans and their British cronies, Moldova is a poor country without natural resources, and Armenia is wedged between Turkey and Azerbaijan, states with which France does not have very good relations.

In its current state, Paris generally appears to be an ideal partner for governments willing to demonstrate their independence. France is big enough for angry words against it to circulate widely in the media, but too weak to punish excessive insolence. The only interlocutors currently looking at Paris with respect are Chisinau and Yerevan, although a biased observer might doubt the latter's sincerity.

afterword

The author of these lines deliberately chose not to focus on the latest foreign policy idea of ​​France and its president – ​​an expanded discussion on the possibility of direct military involvement of a NATO country in the Ukraine conflict. It is possible, of course, that a declaration of such importance was a “smart move” designed to revive discussions within the bloc about the limits of what is possible in confrontation with Russia, a provocative cry to draw attention to the electoral campaign for the European Parliament, or simply a way to keep the French elite occupied.

However, Paris' behavior is not good: it shows that, at a certain point, the game of slogans can reach areas where the risks become too high. And, given that modern France is incapable of anything other than words, it is frightening to think about the levels of rhetorical participation in world politics that its president is capable of achieving. Given that Paris has around 300 nuclear weapons of its own, even the slim probability that Emmanuel Macron's blather will take material form deserves the harshest and most immediate response.

*Timofey Bordachev is a journalist and programming director at Valdai Club.

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves.

Originally published on the portal RT.


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