Macron And The French Identity Crisis – OpEd


The desire of privilege and the taste of equality are the dominant and contradictory passions of the French of all times.” — Charles de Gaulle

Baguettes, croissants, the Eiffel Tower, a “welfare system to die for,” vin et fromage à l’infini – cliches are built on degrees of truth, but you can’t live on them–forever. There is no substitute for reality, and the French need a taste of it. 

Intoxicated by years of domestic and foreign policy success, Kierkegaard’s angst now grips the French elite; France under their tutelage is not faring well. And the person in the Elysee Palace? The French president is displaying his insecurity for all to see–he and France are desperate to regain their image and what has been lost or taken from France–influence, respect and an inability to extricate themselves from the penumbra of US hegemony. Here is a recent headline from Breitbart describing the president’s insecurity:

“Italy Blasts ‘Desperate’ Macron for ‘Dangerous’ Rhetoric on Russian-Ukraine War.” 

The same article goes on to say how Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the populist League party, Matteo Salvini, wrote on social media: “Sending Italian soldiers to fight outside the EU borders? Follow the obsessions of some dangerous and desperate European leader like Macron? No thanks, never in the name of the League.”

The French Republic today, and not just because of its current “exercised” president, is in a somewhat difficult position compared to  “yester-year.” France is a nation with a formidable nuclear arsenal, yet it has lost its capacity to influence its geopolitical landscape. Over the last few decades, Paris’ former greatness has slipped from its grasp in the world of geopolitical affairs.  It has, within the European Union, ceded to Germany its leading position – economically and politically. In fact it has completely abandoned the principles needed to effect its internal development. It has apparently decided, in support of Ukraine (“for as long as it takes”), to place its economy on a war footing and, God forbid, to send troops into Ukraine. Thus, tax revenue will now be siphoned off to support Ukraine’s military and domestic needs rather than the French economy. Budget deficits will continue to grow and its GDP will remain stagnant, causing its sovereign debt to increase while the standard of living for its people declines. In other words, the protracted crisis of the Fifth Republic has reached a stage where the lack of political will to solve its many problems, long overdue, is turning into an identity crisis. And insecurity about oneself can have a destabilizing effect on a person or a people. The French appear to be ensconced in a malaise–a sort of paralysis has crept into the body politic.

What is interesting is that the reasons for this dilemma are easy to identify. It’s the outcome that is tricky. And the palpable insecurity demonstrated by the French president is merely a symptom of the general deadlock in French political affairs.  Moreover, this figure as the head of state, which previously has been led by personalities like Charles de Gaulle or François Mitterrand, presents a stark contrast with the past. 

One would have to go back 20 years to find a moment when Paris last demonstrated the will to step from beneath the shadow of the US and exercise a critically important decision on its own. At the time (2003), it opposed US plans to invade Iraq. French diplomacy, under the auspices of Prime Minister de Villepin, effectively cemented a coalition with Germany and Russia, depriving the American initiative of international legitimacy. Since that time, France has once more found its place in European affairs to be subordinate to Germany and within the orbit of US countenance. 

Several concerns coalesced to diminish France’s position. Foremost, the political system of the Fifth Republic had lost its effectiveness in addressing rapid changes occurring within French society. France lost its control over important levers of French economic policy. Its development of and participation in the European Common Market and, more importantly, the euro currency predisposed to Brussels increasingly determining French policy decisions. France was no longer the center of Europe, and Europe was no longer the focus of the world. There was no longer a place for France in the “pantheon” of the world’s great powers. 

The rather prideful insecurity of the man who resides at the Elysee Palace is symptomatic of the crisis in which France now finds itself. The political will to effect change seems equivocal, if not altogether absent. The French Republic doesn’t seem able to muster the will to find a way out of its systemic crisis. It knows it needs to change, but it seems to want to do it without “changing” anything.

In European affairs France, historically, has played a central role in determining major political issues such as trade policy and technical assistance programs. Since the latter part of the 20th century, however, the chief obstacles undermining France’s era of relevant decision-making were the institutions of the collective West – NATO, EU and the euro currency – that ironically, it worked tirelessly to create. Gradually, but consistently, these institutions limited the scope of independent decision-making by the French political elite. At the same time, these restrictions were not simply imposed from outside; they were the product of the solutions that Paris itself found to maintain its influence in world politics and economics.  The supreme irony is that it did so to benefit from the strengthening of Germany’s economy and status (to which it is now subordinate) and to exploit, together with Berlin, the poor European east and south.

Regretfully, the French Republic failed to  control the situation from the inception of European institutions. European foreign policy and military upheavals during the first 50 years of the last century left France exhausted; moreover, the republic ended up dependent on the US to the point of utter humiliation–a circumstance which the French have traditionally despised. Even now, unlike other West and North Europeans (e.g. Baltic States, Belgium, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and let’s not forget the Brits), they are uncomfortable (many would say resentful) about American hegemony. And this only adds to the drama of the situation in Paris which can neither resist nor fully accept US hegemony. 

One could argue, for example, that under President Macron’s leadership, the world witnessed the French being humiliated or slapped (you choose) by their overseas partners (perhaps overlords is preferred). In September 2021, the Australian government rejected a prospective order worth billions of euros for a series of submarines to be produced by Paris. Instead, boat production was redirected by Australia in favor of a new alliance with the US and Britain (AUKUS). The French were effectively cut out of the deal. As a result of its reduced economic status in Europe and its political dependency on the US, France was left impotent to respond. 

Seventy years is a long time in geopolitical terms. 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 (some covet) with modern France. A stable pension system, a huge public sector and the obligations of employers to their workers are the foundations of the welfare state that was created. Since human memories are short and contemporaries tend to absolutise their impressions, this is how France is perceived: well-fed and well-taken care of.

But we should put things into perspective. 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 economic, political and social system of the Fifth Republic was created and flourished. It has been said that time heals–but it can also wound. Irreversible processes in the economy began with the global crisis of the late 2000s and gradually led to problems common in the West: erosion of the middle class, a declining population and, thus, the shrinking capacity of the state to maintain a system of social obligations. To meet these obligations, France saw only one viable option (unfortunately it was a political one)–debt financing.

In the mid-2010s, France became the European champion in terms of the total debt of the economy, reaching 280% of GDP, and the public debt is now 110% of GDP. The main reason for these startling statistics is France’s addiction to huge social spending, which leads to chronic budget deficits with no respite in sight.

France’s most serious problem is that it has a smaller proportion of its adult population in productive work than other developed nations. Early retirement, high youth unemployment and interminable studies mean that France has barely 70% of its 16 to 65 population at work – compared to almost 80% in, say, Britain and Germany.

The inability to solve these structural social and economic problems, combined with the destruction of the traditional structure of society, has led to a crisis within France’s internal political system. The traditional parties of the political Left (Socialists and Communists) and political Right (Republicans and far Right) – are now perilously close to ‘organizational disorganization’. 

In the global economy of today the social base of forces based on coherent political programs is shrinking. Consider the following: the contraction of industry and the population, the growth of the financial and service sectors and immigration dynamics. A result of this process was the electoral victory of Emmanuel Macron, the then little-known candidate of the “Forward!” movement, in May 2017. Since then, his party has been renamed twice: “Forward, Republic!” in 2017 and “Renaissance” from May 2022. What’s next “Onward Baroque?” Macron was re-elected president in 2022, again beating the right-wing candidate Marine Le Pen. But that occurred only because the electorate that typically would not have voted for Macron (Left-wing Socialists, Communists and disenchanted Right-wing Republicans) voted for him to avoid voting for the far Right candidate Le Pen, not because they liked Macron’s policies or trusted him, but because they were more  afraid of the alternative. And Le Pen herself is an outsider to the traditional system of French politics. 

The problems which plague the French Republic are structural which means they are thoroughly integrated into its social, economic and political system. No additional amount of debt or procrastination will suffice to extricate France from its current morass. Difficult political steps must be taken now and continue, if France is to cast off its identity crisis. This is imperative if it hopes to ever recapture a sense of the importance it once felt, and wishes to feel again, in the orbit of world affairs. 

But to do this, the French people will need to take a hard look at themselves. They will need to decide what it means to be French in a France requiring so many decisions–decisions that will inevitably alter the social, economic and political landscape of that proud country.  Electing candidates of the ilk of Macron will only perpetuate an already erosive situation. The question is: can the French people hold onto their joie de vivre and still keep France, France? Bonne Chance.

F. Andrew Wolf, Jr.

F. Andrew Wolf, Jr. is a retired USAF Lt. Col. and retired university professor of the Humanities, Philosophy of Religion and Philosophy. His education includes a PhD in philosophy from Univ. of Wales, two masters degrees (MTh-Texas Christian Univ.), (MA-Univ. South Africa) and an abiding passion for what is in America's best interest.

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