The French connection


After being denounced as being “old Europe”, a clash has been brewing between France and the US. Joe Holt investigates the state of the French state today.

Thetrans-Atlantic alliance hadn’t been shaky in generations until Donald Rumsfield contemptuously denounced France and Germany as constituting ‘old Europe’ following the 9/11 attacks in 2001. At the time, the French President was Jacques Chirac. He expressed outrage at the attacks and assured the US of France’s support and sympathy. Despite Chirac’s words, however, a clash was brewing.

Fast-forward to May 2007. When pro-American Nicolas Sarkozy, leader of the main centre-right party, defeated the socialist party candidate Marie-Ségolène Royal, there were finally prospects of some healing in the bitter Franco-American rift. Sarkozy is known for his strong stance on law and order and his US-like plans to revitalise the French economy. In fact, in foreign affairs, he has promised closer co-operation with the United States.

So, what is France’s position regarding the crisis in capitalism? Well, if we are to believe Sarkozy it “is not a crisis of capitalism” at all. Nonetheless, speaking in Toulon, he called for more state control of the economy. “The idea of an all-powerful market without any rules and any political intervention is mad”, said Sarkozy. “Self-regulation is finished. Laissez-faire is finished. The all-powerful market that is always right is finished.” However, he said it would be a mistake to respond to the market turmoil by abandoning capitalism.

“The crisis is not a crisis of capitalism”, he said. “It is the crisis of a system that is far from the values of capitalism and has betrayed capitalism.” He went on to call for a “new balance between the state and the market”. However, as France currently holds the EU presidency, Europe looked to Sarkozy for an answer. He has taken advantage of this to organise a unified bail-out of the major European banks.

Sarkozy is known for his strong stance on law and order and his US-like plans to revitalise the French economy.

The end of the free-for-all started two weeks ago when the Irish government announced guarantees on deposits in Irish banks. This assertive response has been praised at home and abroad. Sarkozy is now viewed as the man responsible for halting fourteen months of economic woe in Europe. His attention is now likely to shift to the EU’s upcoming summit in Brussels, at which he’ll try to focus the leaders of the other 26 states on the looming recession.

All of this comes as, this month, France celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Fifth Republic. Charles de Gaulle, its first president, famously remarked, “it is Europe, from the Atlantic to the Urals… that will decide the destiny of the world.” This idea of a united Europe leading the way for the rest of the world seemed plausible while the good times were rolling.

But the economic instability of the last few weeks had threatened to rip the EU apart. Starting with Ireland, a number of member states – notably AffairsGermany, Spain and Austria – had decided to go-it-alone economically. This decision incensed other member states. With the EU seemingly hanging by a thread it was the current French president who stepped in to preserve the relationship between its members.

This was Gaullist. De Gaulle came to power because he was seen as the only person to steer France through the Algerian Crisis in 1958. Similarly, Sarkozy was elected on the basis that he would provide stronger leadership than his opponents with regards to the hitherto key issue of his time, immigration.

However, whereas de Gaulle’s re-ascension to power heralded the migration of over a million people from Algeria to France, Sarkozy’s tenure thus far has been marked by large scale deportation. France’s Immigration Ministry said this month that it will surpass its target of 26,000 deportations this year. More than 17,200 foreigners have been deported in the first six months of 2008 alone.

The President’s tough approach to the issue has drawn heavy criticism from some quarters. Last October’s introduction of DNA testing on potential immigrants proved particularly divisive. This system sees immigrants wishing to join their families in France being vetted by DNA tests to ensure that they are whom they claim.

Sarkozy has transplanted the policies that made him popular back home onto the European stage, too. Consequently, immigration control has been the cornerstone of the French presidency of the EU, which will end in January. He has used his clout to ensure that the EU approves an agreement which will make it much more difficult for member states to grant large scale amnesties to illegal immigrants. This month also sees the introduction of a ‘blue card’ for migrants seeking to enter Europe, similar to the green card required for residency in the US (Ireland, however, is not subject to this new scheme).

Charles de Gaulle’s theory that a united Europe will set the example for the rest of the world has been put to the test in recent months. Those looking for economic leadership in these times would do well to look east. However, the incumbent French president seems to have ensured, for now at least, that even if Europe is not to lead, it will at least remain united.