The geopolitical consequences of the economic crisis for France

Par Pierre VERLUISE, le 2 juillet 2012  Imprimer l'article  lecture optimisée  Télécharger l'article au format PDF

Pierre Verluise, Director of the geopolitics Web site Director of research at IRIS. Doctor of Geopolitics at Paris-Sorbonne University, Author of numerous articles published in eight languages and a dozen books, including 20 ans après la chute du Mur. L’Europe recomposée, Paris, Choiseul, 2009. verluise

The economic crisis undoes France’s game plan for European defense, while the new deal strengthens Germany’s hand.

The shock waves of the crisis imported from the USA in 2007-2008 are rippling through the underpinnings of the economy and the balance of power. Things will never be the same again. So what are the geopolitical consequences of the economic crisis for France ? [1]

The economic crisis undoes France’s game plan for European defense, while the new deal strengthens Germany’s hand.

1. The economic crisis undoes France’s game plan for European defense

A. France’s hidden agenda on rejoining NATO’s integrated military command

A founder member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, General de Gaulle’s France left NATO’s integrated military command structure in 1966. Since then, Paris has developed a hopefully subtle posture, with one foot in NATO and the other outside. France has for long pretended – and some still do today – that this singular stance has enabled the country to express, with a singular voice, its own peculiar national genius. A French officer bold enough to query it significantly imperiled his career prospects. This did not prevent NATO from surviving the end of the Cold War (1990) and – worse still from a Paris perspective – expanding several times. On January 1 2007, 21 of the European Union’s 27 member nations were also members of NATO. Could there be a relation of cause and effect here ? During the run-up to the May 2007 presidential election, the candidate Nicolas Sarkozy announced that, if elected, he would openly reexamine relations between France and NATO. Hands untied by the mandate bestowed on him by universal suffrage, he was able to break the taboo and set in motion – with strangely very little debate – the dynamic for France’s return to NATO’s integrated military command structure, effective as from April 2009.

It looked very much as though the aim of France’s return to NATO’s integrated military command structure was to remove an obstacle to the potential development of European defense by the European Union itself. This is a project close to France’s heart but whose development seems, till now, to have been hindered by the fact that other EU members have seen in it a desire to compete with or even destroy NATO, perceived as the unmovable cornerstone of European defense. By removing the stumbling block, Paris has hoped to see the members of the European Union take more responsibility on defense issues. Now that it has committed to normalizing its situation with NATO, Paris has now, however, had to come up with some guarantees.

B. Staying in Afghanistan : a proof of good will and the price of bloodshed

Since 2001, France has been involved in operations in Afghanistan, even though consecutive governments have not been able to offer a meaningful explanation of this presence. Yet it is manifestly a political gesture, a sign of Franco-American solidarity in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. French public opinion has never manifested much enthusiasm for this distant war, the motives for which remain unclear and the perspectives confused. Paris had started to cut back on the number of troops committed in the latter stages of Jacques Chirac’s term as French President. Once elected, Nicolas Sarkozy had to offer some pledges to NATO and partially satisfy the pressing demands to supply troops. The result was that France stepped up its footprint in a theatre that it knew was tough. The number of casualties rose. The television news reported each death in a politically damaging toll. The French President attended funerals on several occasions in an attempt to infuse some meaning into the price of the bloodshed. In a society that believes in zero risk, the task became difficult. The Vigipirate national security plan for long contributed to keeping the risk of a terrorist response to the French deployment in Afghanistan at arm’s length. However, in March 2012, Mohammed Merah killed seven people, including children after twice staying in “AfPak” training camps. Surely these seven deaths can legitimately be added to French losses in Afghanistan. On June 9 2012, these had amounted to 86. [2]

Whatever the case, this drama was followed by several announcements that the return of French troops from Afghanistan was being fast-tracked. In the contemporary view, the price paid was becoming too heavy for an insufficient strategic payback. Having lost dozens of its sons in the Himalayas and some of its children to Merah’s bullets, can France at least reap the reward of pushing forward the agenda for European defense ?

C. The economic crisis is leading the EU member states to cut back defense spending, prefer NATO and neglect European defense

The 21 states that are members of both the EU and NATO have for long been accused by the US of devoting insufficient investment to defense, and are now being forced by the economic crisis to chip away at this budget like any other. Back in July 2010, the French government announced a €3.5 bn cutback to be spread over three years. This was tantamount to writing Paris into a general European movement that prompted Etienne de Durand, deputy director at the Institut français des relations internationales (IFRI) to lament : “The current trend is suicidal. For the coming decade this probably means the end of any form of European defense.” [3]

By the end of 2011, France was in good company. Germany announced a four-year plan whereby it would be reducing defense expenditure by €8.3 and slashing personnel by 40% between now and 2014. The UK is to prune its budget by 8%, laying off 40,000 people over the next four years. Italy has decided on a 10% reduction for the period 2011-2013. The Netherlands is seeking to save €1 bn on defense spending. Not to mention Greece, whose economic woes are forcing it to scale down the high military expenditure related to its tense relations with Turkey.

In mid-2012, most observers note that European defense is grinding to a halt, while NATO continues to gain ground, each summit bringing more grist to its mill. The problems in Afghanistan are not enough to mask the obvious : the economic crisis has added to the political dilemma a new parameter that will be decisive in preventing the development of European defense that Paris was banking on in exchange for its return to the NATO integrated military command structure.

The second geopolitical consequence of the economic crisis is the reorganization of Franco-German relations.

2. The economic crisis strengthens Germany’s hand

A. Since the end of the 1950s, France has hoped that by building Europe it could tie down Germany

1870, 1914-1918, 1939-1945 : three wars with Germany left a mark on French collective memory. Witness the war memorials still to be seen in any French town or village. At the end of WWII, Germany, the loser, was divided into four zones : Soviet, American, British and French. In 1949, the Berlin Blockade crisis spawned two nations, East and West Germany, or officially, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), respectively under Soviet and US influence. Against the backdrop of the iron curtain a complex new dynamic appeased Franco-German relations, firstly in the form of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC, 1951), then in the European Economic Community (EEC, 1957), of which France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg were the six founder nations.

Though in the France of the 1960s memories of the war were still fresh, its president was Charles de Gaulle, the former exiled leader of “Free France”. This track record gave de Gaulle the historic legitimacy that was a prerequisite for stretching out a hand to West Germany with the signature, on January 22 1963, of the Elysée Treaty, strengthening Franco-German cooperation. So what was General de Gaulle’s hidden agenda in offering the Treaty of Friendship to the FRG ? As far as we can gather, the founder of the 5th Republic intended France’s participation in the construction of the EEC and then the Elysée Treaty as a double-barreled geopolitical project. “Everything suggests that General de Gaulle hoped to tie up, or perhaps even tie down, Germany by building a Europe that he envisioned as independent from the USA”, explained the diplomat Jean-Marc Boegner, a close collaborator of General de Gaulle in an interview [4]. The concern was deep-rooted. Jean-Paul Bled writes : “As from the 1950s, France’s European option was dictated by the obsession with Germany. Since the Schuman plan, the aim was to tie down Germany in a supranational structure to prevent it from developing a new policy of power.” [5]

General de Gaulle was, however, undermined when the Bundestag added a preamble referring to close cooperation between the US and Europe, placing common defense within the compass of NATO. The preamble also opened the door to the EEC for the UK, an option to which de Gaulle was opposed. In the following decades, Franco-German relations became a roller-coaster but happily remained pacific, and often key for the advancement of European construction. When Germany was split into two, France of course felt the pain [6] but remained diplomatically wary of the Ostpolitik that gradually gained ground in West Germany.

B. In 1989, Paris attempted to prevent German unification… before giving up on this and many other fronts

The GDR’s decision to open the Berlin wall on November 9 1989 completely wrong-footed François Mitterrand’s France. From December 20 to 22 1989, the French president [7] went ahead with a visit to the leaders of the GDR, declaring at an official dinner : “The German Democratic Republic and France still have a lot to do together” ! In other words, President Mitterrand’s initial reaction was to try to slow down German reunification, which, in his eyes, jeopardized France’s status in Europe. On December 31 1989 he even mooted the idea of a Big Europe – a European Confederation espousing the USSR – that would have enabled France to oversee German reunification with the discreet collaboration of the Soviet Union. Thus France would have held on to its international role.

Bonn was not impressed [8], but Chancellor Helmut Kohl pressed ahead, fast-tracking the negotiations that led to unification on October 3 1990. The next task was to pick up the pieces. The Treaty of Maastricht was to be the response concocted by the French and German leaders to the upheavals in the balance of power in Western Europe brought about by German reunification. The negotiations that led to the treaty and the initial implementation became the opportunity for Germany to settle its differences with Paris. France lost a sequence of battles, notably on the subject of the definition of the criteria for admission to the single currency, the location of the headquarters of the European Central Bank, the currency’s name, and the choice of the BCE’s first president. [9]

Despite all this, the public is generally unaware of the saga of discreet confrontations, and Franco-German relations still seem relatively balanced. It is however worth noting that hardly had he been elected than Nicolas Sarkozy saw his project for a Mediterranean Union clipped back – not to say emasculated – by Chancellor Angela Merkel, who made it into a Union for the Mediterranean. [10]

C. Since 2008, the economic crisis has clearly put Germany in a strong position

Since the start of the financial crisis, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been at the helm. He has made many speeches, sometimes iconoclastically castigating the banks and tax havens. He has made numerous proposals and cast himself in the role of savior of Europe ; a role that should be neither ignored nor underestimated.

This should not blind us to the fact that the economic crisis offers Germany the opportunity to appear on at least an equal footing with France [11] and indeed to enjoy a dominant position with regard to Paris and all the other member nations. Why ? Because Germany has succeeded in setting up the euro to work in its favor, developing an export-oriented economy and making the necessary reforms in good time. Berlin has room to maneuver while others are on the edge of asphyxia. As a result, Chancellor Angela Merkel can give the impression that she is dragging her feet, just as President Sarkozy is straining at the leash. In fact, when each summit comes around, Germany proves that it can control both the timing and the scope of the acceptable compromises. There is no doubt that Paris has led Berlin into agreeing to the principle of supporting Greece and setting up a European stabilization fund. However, President Sarkozy has had to give up on Eurobonds, the transformation of the European support fund into a bank supported in turn by the ECB, and has had to write off the idea of the latter being authorized to buy back sovereign debt. Germany has successfully institutionalized budgetary stringency in the other member nations and has made the EU responsible for overseeing this.

In a word, the economic crisis enables Germany to enjoy a form of leadership over the European Union, while having no qualms about not following Paris and London into the military operation in Libya in 2011.

Lastly it is worth noting that the results of the first round of the French presidential elections on April 22 2012 provide food for thought in Germany as well as elsewhere in the world. That one in three voters chose an anti-European protest party – the Front national or the leftist Front de gauche – cannot fail to have consequences for France’s image abroad. It is true that the other candidates were, for the most part, relatively quiet on the subject of the Union European [12], limiting themselves to questioning the application of the Schengen Agreement or the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union, finalized at the summit on January 30 2012.


Thus, the economic crisis that began in 2008 has major geopolitical consequences for France : it undoes France’s game plan for European defense, while the new deal strengthens Germany’s hand.

It is important first to open a parenthesis here about the collateral effect of the crisis, making the rapprochement between France and the UK more complex. There is no secret about how far relations between Paris and London go back, having, through history, traversed alternating times of rivalry and cooperation. Having twice vetoed the United Kingdom’s entry into the EEC because he saw the UK as a Trojan Horse for the USA, General de Gaulle resigned in 1969 and died in 1970. With the historic figure out of the picture, his successor Georges Pompidou’s France raised the veto and, in 1973, the UK joined the EEC, at the same time as the Irish Republic. London demonstrated its sometimes remarkable diplomatic knowhow and developed a lead of several lengths in lobbying techniques to further the development of Europe as a “market” at the expense of Europe as a “power”. The UK has often been the lynchpin of a strong relationship between the EU and NATO, in opposition to the French idea of a European defense. The Saint-Malo (1998) summit is generally presented in Paris as the starting point of a European defense but this assessment is based on an optical illusion. Paris then imagined that, with backing from London, the obstacles preventing the pursuit of the European defense goal would be removed. European defense, however, remained under the NATO umbrella. This was confirmed by the Treaty of Lisbon (2007), which reinforced the links between the EU nations and NATO, now “the foundation of their collective defense and the forum for its implementation”. The formula, if taken literally, drives the last nail into the coffin of a European defense initiative or of any perspectives of independent action by the EU in this sphere.

This done, London and Paris have started to bridge the divide, the result being the signature of two treaties in October 2010, one on nuclear armament. The understanding made sense since France and the UK are the EU’s two military big hitters, both now facing budgetary constraints. Their understanding became very real in the skies of Libya when the French and British armed forces collaborated in the combats of 2011.

The economic crisis and its impact on the euro have nonetheless crossed some wires between the two capitals. Effectively, on December 8 and 9 2011, the heads of state and government of the EU ─ all except the UK ─ reached an agreement on the contents of the measures introduced to reinforce budgetary discipline in the euro zone, with the “golden rules” to be applied in every country and near-automatic sanctions for countries whose deficit exceeded 3%. Using his veto, David Cameron, the British prime minister, sparked strong response, both in the UK and across the EU, notably in France. On January 30 2012, London [13] still refused to sign the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union. True, the United Kingdom is not a member of the euro zone and is beneficiary of a clause enabling it to stay outside ; Paris is still unhappy. “Nations don’t have friends, they just have interests”, as Palmerston would have had it. It remains to be seen whether Paris and London will, in the coming months, succeed in ironing out their differences and continue to develop their recent revival of understanding.

The economic crisis now in full swing in France and the European Union looks to be far from over. It appears probable that the economic slowdown in 2012 will speed up events in many areas : financial, social, political… and geopolitical.

It is still too soon to assess the impact of the election of the new French president, François Hollande, who took office on May 15 2012. There can be no question that he has his work cut out.

Copyright Verluise-Fell-2012/


French Géopolitique de la France : quelles sont les conséquences de la crise économique ? See

Italian Le lezioni della crisi : Europa più debole, Germania più forte See

[1This is the English translation by Alan Fell of an article originally written in French and initially published in Italian in the review Limes, 3/2012, Le lezioni della crisi : Europa più debole, Germania più forte", pp. 107-114.

[2Source : ?hndQry=France Consultation le 9 juin 2012.

[3Quoted by Nathalie GUIBERT in “La diminution du budget de la défense ouvre un débat stratégique”, Le Monde, July 3 2010. (Our translation).

[4Interview with VERLUISE, Paris, 1997. (Our translation.)

[5Jean-Paul BLED, “Une étrange défaite, le piège de Maastricht. Lettre ouverte d’un gaulliste à Jacques Chirac”, François-Xavier de Guibert, 1998, p. 19. (Our translation.)

[6Though we could also quote French writer François Mauriac : “I love Germany so much that I prefer to have two of them”. (Our translation.)

[7According to former French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas, the French ambassador in Moscow sent a wire on December 18 1989 claiming that : “Gorbachev can be expected to halt the process, enabling the East German authorities to gradually turn round the situation in the GDR”. Roland DUMAS, Le fil et la pelote, Plon, 1996, p. 384. (Our translation.)

[8Cf. Horst TELSCHIK, 329 Tagen, Siedler Verlag, 1994, 380 p. See also Helmut KOHL, Ich wolte Deutschlands Einheit, Propyläen Verlag, 1996, 488 p.

[9Cf. Pierre VERLUISE, 20 ans après la chute du Mur. L’Europe recomposée, Choiseul, 2009, Chapter 4.

[10Cf. Pierre VERLUISE, “L’Union pour la Méditerranée, quel bilan d’étape ?”, IRIS, Actualités européennes, n°35, June 2010, 6 p.

[11The press uses the portmanteau “Merkozy” to refer to the special relationship between Merkel and Sarkozy.

[12Cf. Pierre VERLUISE, La France est-elle en Europe ? Published on the Canadian Web site Global Brief on April 8 2012 at this address :

[13The United Kingdom was joined in rejection by the Czech Republic.

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