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Nobody has ever described former French President Nicolas Sarkozy as a graceful loser. “I’m not saying, ‘After me, chaos,’” he told Le Figaro, referring to his eventual defeat by François Hollande, although that is, of course, exactly what he meant. Sarkozy all but taunted the French public, warning that they would sorely miss the fiscal discipline, vigilant defense, and respectable centrism he saw as the hallmarks of his presidency. And, belatedly, it does seem he had a point. Chaos is precisely what France has reaped in recent days. A murderous series of terror attacks has been followed by a nationwide manhunt, and warnings of further massacres to come.
Facing a crisis of this sort, most other nations’ natural instinct would be to recoil. The French, by contrast, have indulged their instinct for repaying an indignity. Hollande has already initiated a series of airstrikes on the Islamic State capital in Syria. The French government has also signaled that, on matters both economic and political, it will no longer be content with taking a backseat to Germany in the European Union. France has declared the Islamic State an outright enemy; more quietly, it has started treating German Chancellor Angela Merkel as a new type of adversary.
It might seem ironic that France has responded to its national crisis by setting its national aspirations even higher. But it’s entirely in keeping with France’s national character, and its traditional role in Europe. And it might turn out to be precisely what puts an end to the continent’s own extended moment of crisis.
France’s new slogan of resistance, mocked up in cartoons and painted on city walls, is an old one: Fluctuat Nec Mergitur, the motto of Paris itself, inscribed on the city’s coat of arms. (Translation: tossed but not sunk, like a ship on the water.) Old habits die hard, and the sheer outrage of the attacks has reminded even Hollande of how unnatural and belittling German control over French budgeting has come to feel. “The security pact takes precedence over the stability pact,” as he announced at a joint session of parliament, vowing to spend whatever French security requires — however far in excess of European Union deficit caps.
France’s nationalistic insurgency is just the beginning. But with the right pair of eyes, it wasn’t hard to detect in advance. The country’s public, and its political class, have chafed for a long while at Europe’s reigning ideology of Merkelism, an approach to budgetary penny-pinching somewhat like Sarkozy’s but considerably more drastic, and infinitely more German in its commitment to following common rules. Merkel’s approach to keeping the eurozone intact was viewed by many Europeans as everything from bunk economics to moral bankruptcy, and its dead yet grasping hand was invasive enough to stir up memories of the deceptively distant Nazi occupation.
“More than the bad memories ushered in by German economic domination,” I wrote for FP on the eve of Sarkozy’s defeat, “the real danger to increased fiscal unity in Europe is the longing to live into a future where political ideas and political decisions once again are possible. Being political again means being free from the tyranny of economic considerations. And we all know where that could lead,” I concluded — meaning, indeed, war.
How apropos that France should declare it now. “France is at war,” Hollande intoned. “Terrorism will not destroy the Republic, because it is the Republic that will destroy terrorism,” complete with sped-up deportation proceedings and an end to French citizenship for dual nationals convicted of terrorist acts. Neither victory for the French nor defeat for Europe’s enemies, in other words, will emanate from the managed technocracy of the European Union. It must not have been lost on Parisians, or anyone, that even the national government in Brussels, where the institutions of the EU reside, confessed it could not “control” the “situation” in Molenbeek — that capital’s run-down neighborhood linked to a string of terrorist plots, the Paris assaults the last. That shamefaced admission was an unforgiving analog of everything cumbersome, aloof, distant, ineffective, and weirdly dehumanized about the EU under German leadership, concerned as it is more about monetary and financial togetherness than unity of purpose on more fundamental political questions.
Indeed, France recognizes that the nature of the threat Europe’s nations now face is broader than just Islamic terrorism. From Greece at the outset to Portugal now, “German austerity” has become the all-but-irreconcilable difference pitting nationalists on the right and left against continental elites obliged to follow in Angela Merkel’s footsteps. “What we are seeing,” thundered UKIP chief Nigel Farage late last month, “is an increasingly authoritarian European Union that crushes democratic rights and then actually crows about it. Every single time there is a crisis, it is national democracy that loses.”
But the EU’s British critics are marginal, taking offshore potshots from the institution’s sidelines. A turn in France toward popular force, and against bankers’ restraint, however, would be a decisive blow to Merkel’s reign in Europe. No other nation in Europe is consequential enough to have anchored the EU as an equal partner with Germany, and no other can hold its lesser members together with an alternate worldview as firmly established as Germany’s own.
The thrust of public opinion in France — to the chagrin of socialists there and everywhere — has turned the corner against Merkelism on more than just matters financial. It has become impossible to ignore the abject misfortune of the 6,000 Syrian refugees at the tear-gassed slum camp in Calais known as the “New Jungle.” The French public is not eager to host any more migrants fleeing from war — and the feeling is apparently mutual. When Hollande set out in September to share the moral burden that Merkel had felt in opening German borders, less than two-thirds of one thousand invitees agreed to cross the Rhine.
Hollande has already dismissed Merkel’s insistence on emphasizing the resettlement of Syrian refugees over more basic security questions. “If Europe doesn’t control its external borders,” Hollande declaimed in his speech before parliament, “it is the return of national borders or walls and barbed wire.”
Now, Merkel is losing the support of allies including (another irony) the finance minister of Bavaria, one Markus Soeder, who has abruptly proclaimed that “Paris changes everything.” Balkan razor wire and German anxieties have already chipped away at Berlin’s hegemony in Europe on questions of migration; but only French élan can fill the breach and provide a confident alternative to Merkel’s vision. French politicians well to Sarkozy’s right are already preparing to do just that. Backed by another bump in the polls, National Front chief Marine Le Pen has demanded France break with the EU’s quota system for migrant admissions and impose an immediate halt. Le Pen has recognized that the backlash to Merkelism is as politically potent as the reaction to Bourbon despotism had once been in an earlier age. (She seems not to have entirely recognized, however, that France may struggle to capture the heart of Europe if it sours too much on the message of universal liberty, equality, and fraternity.)
In all likelihood, the recent decades France has spent on the backbench of Europe will be seen as a classic historical blip. Radical or reactionary, French political opinion has characteristically spoken with prideful particularity to matters of universal European — and human — concern. And wherever its place on the spectrum, the French character has often bristled against the pinching modesty of accountants’ values. A few centuries ago, contempt was aimed at Britain’s nation of shopkeepers. This century, it is Germany’s turn.
American observers may shudder at the thought of French demagogues ripping away the hard-won triumph of bourgeois rectitude that our German allies secured against Europe’s more dangerous and deeper dreams. But in modern times, France has never had a claim to be first among equals in Europe, and neither the distant memory of Napoleon nor Robespierre breed Hitlerian levels of fear across the continent. Moreover, most Europeans instinctively understand that politics, not economics, will protect the cultural goods that jihad imperils most of all. And nobody truly expects a continental politics without a continental leader. If history was made that bloody night in Paris, it could well be France’s return to dominance that has risen out of the terror.
Photo credit: TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP/Getty Images