With few exceptions, neither EU leaders nor those from the big member countries will make radical decisions in the coming months to buoy the bloc’s ailing economy, despite high unemployment and structural inefficiencies. This is because in 2017, a combination of presidential and parliamentary elections will be held in the Netherlands, France, and Germany.
The most important of these will be the French presidential election. France’s next leader will determine whether the country will regain its place in Europe as a strong economic power, a robust foreign policy player, and a country with a keen sense of strategic direction. The latter is more important than ever since the election on November 8 of Donald Trump as the next president of the United States. He shows scant interest in the transatlantic relationship.
French President François Hollande’s stint in office since 2012 has been close to a disaster. He has pulled France further into economic and political decline, besides degrading the office with his expensive life style and monthly visits to the coiffeur.
Marine Le Pen, who leads the far-right National Front and is making a bid to become president, has vowed to reverse those trends—by holding a referendum aimed at taking France out of the EU. That would be the end of Europe’s post-1945 political architecture.
That is why much attention is now focused on François Fillon. He won a resounding victory in the November 20–27 presidential primary held by France’s The Republicans and two smaller center-right parties. Fillon, a former prime minister who did very little to reform France’s sclerotic economy when he was in office in 2007–2012, has promised to turn the country around. “If the French people entrust me with their confidence,” he said, “I will try to respect that contract and conduct myself with dignity. I will take up an unusual challenge for France: to tell the truth and completely change its software.”
This socially conservative Catholic has promised a raft of radical measures. They include cutting 500,000 public-sector jobs, raising the retirement age, scrapping the thirty-five-hour work week, and ending the wealth tax. Because France has a high level of public spending—at 57 percent of GDP—that has to be financed by taxes, reforms in this sector are long overdue.
But any time a French prime minister has dared introduce changes to make the economy and the labor market more flexible, the unions and students have resorted to strikes. When there were plans to close the historic Alstom manufacturing plant at Belfort in eastern France because it was making losses, Hollande stepped in. The government, which holds a 20 percent stake in Alstom, said it would bring forward the production of an extra fifteen TGV high-speed trains, even though they will have to use old tracks on which they cannot run at their maximum speed. New tracks are not yet in place.
It is not certain that Fillon will make it to the Élysée Palace. The election is six months away. The Socialist Party, embroiled in a bitter power struggle, has yet to declare its candidate. Prime Minister Manuel Valls and Hollande may even run against each other, which would destroy the party. The presidential contest could end up being between Le Pen and Fillon.
The outcome will shape France’s and Europe’s destinies. During its years of economic growth and confidence, France played a key role in the EU by promoting major projects, from Airbus to Galileo, the EU’s satellite navigation system. Many schemes ran over budget, but they were about France, still wedded to a Gaullist view of itself in Europe, trying to give the EU a particular economic identity.
France also pushed for the introduction of the euro. Germany, under former chancellor Helmut Kohl, reluctantly gave up the country’s much-cherished deutsche mark. He did this for many reasons. Kohl passionately believed in more European integration. He also believed in the historic responsibility of the Franco-German relationship that the United States nurtured after 1945 and that grew into what became today’s European Union. Paris, by contrast, believed the euro would weaken Germany, as France would influence if not dominate the monetary union.
Now look at the geopolitical map of Europe. It is dominated by Germany, while France is struggling. More worryingly for Berlin, the longer France remains weak, the greater the risk that the Franco-German relationship will become redundant, because the economic and political imbalance is so stark.
That would weaken the EU. Progress in European integration and major EU projects have almost always depended on Berlin and Paris working together. Germany, even if it wanted to push for more integration, could not do so with a weak France. Furthermore, with Trump showing little interest in Europe and more interest in Russia and Britain, Germany and France will sooner or later have to steer the EU in a strategic direction that takes into account the immense changes unfolding in the transatlantic relationship.
Buttering up Russian President Vladimir Putin, which is also Le Pen’s and Fillon’s approach, is an antistrategy. It does little to help Europe—and particularly France—understand why it has to put its own house in order first.