Published on the 8th of October 2017 on Scroll.in
La furia francese – France’s fire and fury – was how Italians saw France’s repeated military campaigns after 1495, and these words have come to encapsulate a recurring French ambition and, sometimes, overextension inside Europe. Emmanuel Macron is giving the phrase new life.
For decades, France’s role inside Europe has been dwindling. Nicolas Sarkozy’s brilliant but tactical handling of the 2007 financial crisis was probably France’s leading contribution to Europe in recent decades, and it was not followed through. This is in part due to the political blockade against domestic reforms, making France a laggard among European economies and also due to three successive presidents – Jacques Chirac, Sarkozy and François Hollande – who shied away from making significant proposals for the European Union. Managing public anxiety and shielding France from direct impact of a global crisis turned France into a follower.
During that same interval, no other member state led Europe, not even Germany, unless one imports the Japanese notion of “leading from behind”. This could be a fit with Germany’s reluctance to put itself in the firing line as well as Chancellor Angela Merkel’s well-known aversion to quick and high-risk decisions. Yet in a Europe that is not federal, not much can happen without a strong push by one or several core member states. Germany under Merkel has been unambiguously committed to Europe, but seldom shown the way forward, instead preferring to debate and move under the cover of European consensus. Only on the refugee issue did Merkel take a quick and decisive step – one that proved controversial inside Germany and with European neighbors.
Macron’s victory at the Presidential polls early this year, therefore, came at a critical juncture for Europe. He has pushed back two decades of rising nationalist sentiment while embodying a sense of renewal as French politicians of the baby-boom generation exit a stage which they have monopolised longer than elsewhere in Europe. Two political camps have fought each other for decades over whom to subsidise and whom to tax in order to pay for continuing subsidies. The two are now in disarray. Macron broke with what had become France’s prevailing tactics – use its weight inside Europe and Germany’s need of a French proxy to delay major reforms: “Encore un instant, Monsieur le Bourreau,” or “Just a moment, Monsieur Executioner.”
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