To Be Absolutely Frank

Infernal France

If it's any consolation, Paris bedevils the rest of Europe the way it thinks it does Washington.

By 10.3.03

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Euroskeptics on both sides of the Atlantic will be watching with apprehension tomorrow as the leaders of 25 nations meet in Rome to open a conference on the European constitution.

Nationalists within Europe worry that the constitution will advance the European Union's centralization, giving more power to Brussels at the expense of member states. The current draft calls for a president and foreign minister to speak for the entire EU, and would reduce the power of individual members to veto collective decisions.

American Euroskeptics see the constitution as the handiwork of France, whose policy since President Charles de Gaulle has been to build up the EU as a counterweight to the New World "hegemon." Former French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, who presided over the group that produced the draft constitution, has cast the project as the construction of a "political power that will speak as an equal with the largest powers on the planet."

Whatever the final version of the constitution says -- and there are signs that not every government will respect Giscard's admonition to leave the draft intact -- critics who fear the imposition of a tyrannical superstate or the EU's domination by French geopolitical interests should take heart from France's own recent problems with Brussels.

Paris has been tussling for weeks with the European Commission (the EU's executive branch) over planned government subsidies to the troubled French engineering conglomerate Alstom. Bailing out a national company in such a way would violate the EU's competition rules, in which case the EC is supposed to punish the French government with heavy fines. For political reasons, it would rather not do so, but if it does nothing, the rule will be a dead letter, and a major pillar of the single market will have collapsed. The parties are negotiating over a face-saving compromise that would disguise the French subsidies as loans.

France has been even naughtier in its flouting of the growth and stability pact, the basic eligibility requirement for countries using the common currency. Its latest budget violates the annual deficit ceiling (3 percent of gross national product) for the third year in a row. When questioned about this last month, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin said that the pact was a fine thing in principle, but "our first duty is to get back to growth and employment" in France.

This sort of talk has angered small countries such as Austria and the Netherlands, whose inferior political clout leaves them no choice but to respect the pact. Nor can Raffarin's comments have charmed the incoming eastern European member states, whom French President Jacques Chirac described as "badly brought-up" children for deviating from his line on Iraq, and who will be making strenuous sacrifices in hopes of qualifying for the euro by the end of the decade.

France's refusal to play by the rules is on one level simply a case of national politicians looking out for the people on whose votes they depend. The choice between local jobs and the continental monetary system is no choice at all for a prime minister who wants to stay in office.

But in this instance as in so many others, France is special. The arrogance with which it violates EU rules -- rules which it largely designed itself -- is the same arrogance with which it dreams of leading the EU in superpower rivalry with America. Can you spot the conflict here?

In the words of Charles Kupchan: "The remnants of Gaullism continue to hold a perverse sway over French politics, producing a brand of nationalism that at once has great ambition for the European enterprise and stands in the way of realizing that ambition. … France is no longer strong enough to project its voice on the global stage, and hence looks to Europe to do so instead. But that same sense of weakness denies the French the confidence to move forward on integration and further sublimate the national state to the European project."

This doesn't mean that the EU will now disintegrate following France's bad example. The accession of ten new countries next year, with more on the waiting list, shows that Europeans see plenty to be gained from integration. Kupchan himself thinks the EU is bound for superpower status. But it's at least as easy to imagine French hubris acting as a continuing brake on the power of Brussels, and of France itself.

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About the Author

Francis X. Rocca ia an American writer in Rome, Italy.