Over the past 50 years or so, all French politicians have maintained that what is good for France is good for Europe. In their mind France simply is Europe. And a Europe with France not at its centre was always inconceivable to them. But something is beginning to change. The French ‘no’ to the European Constitution in the referendum in 2006 came as a wake-up call, if not immediately.
President Sarkozy said at the start of his first (and only?) term that Europe was central in his policies. But with five years delay, the French ‘non’ has now finally found its way into French politics.
All candidates in the upcoming presidential elections have at least some form of euroscepticism in their election manifestos. It ranges from Mr Bayrou's ‘buy French’ credo to outright hostility and a desire to leave the euro as the Front National wants. But also the mainstream parties and candidates no longer hide that in their quest for the supposedly eurosceptic French vote, they are willing to give up positions they have held for years.
Socialist Party (PS) candidate François Hollande made it well known, even before the treaty was agreed upon in December, that he would like to renegotiate the fiscal compact treaty as it lacks, in his view, an economic growth component. At the time he said it late last autumn, almost everyone in Europe considered this to be a very outlandish stance for someone who nevertheless represents one of the three grand political families in Europe. But come March 2012, his call for a growth component is almost universally agreed upon.
Italy's PM, Mario Monti, said as much, and a great number of member states' leaders wrote something along this line in an open letter to the European Commission as well. It is true that they did not insist on renegotiating the treaty, but rather to supplement it. Which has become the credo of the PS, as well. And besides, even Monti called the treaty superfluous and basically only something to help the German government get support for increasing the European firewall.
But there are other candidates in this election that want France to go much further and leave the EU altogether, like Mr Dupont-Aignan of Débout la République. Or there are those that are dead against capitalism like the left candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
In fact with all this, Mr Hollande's position is now one of the most pro-European in the presidential race. Candidate Sarkozy is countering almost anything that President Sarkozy said to have stood for five years ago. So now candidate Sarkozy is giving the EU one year to reform the Schengen Treaty, or he will abandon it. And he is starting to speak fondly of the empty chair policy of General de Gaulle in the 60s, when France refused for some time to play ball. As in those days, unanimity was needed in almost everything, it turned out to be effective in the sense that it stopped decision making. That might be different this time, where most decisions are taken by qualified majority. And I am sure that there are quite a few participants in European meetings who would not mind being confronted with an empty seat rather than one occupied by a French president who at times gives the impression that he beliefs he rules Europe…with a little help of Angela of course.
The European Council does make most decisions by consensus (French for ‘arm-twisting’), though, and thus an empty chair policy might indeed work. But not in the normal ministerial Councils, where majorities can be found without France.
Initially, all this French electoral rhetoric was seen with some bemusement on the other side of the Rhine (‘Outre-Rhin’). But by now the German press, and others as well, are beginning to worry that, what was once a pillar of European construction, is now becoming more and more an unpredictable self-centred wobbly stake on which it becomes very dangerous to build anything. One can only hope that once the elections are over, the second round is on May 6, common sense will return in France and the rhetoric goes back to the ‘grandeur’ of France within a European Union; which is, of course, French grandeur first and European later.