June 12, 2007

Geopolitical Diary: France Changes Direction

Source: Stratfor
June 12, 2007 02 39 GMT

France's ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) has garnered enough seats in the first round of ongoing parliamentary elections held June 10 to rule with an absolute majority, according to final results released on Monday. Everything from here out for the UMP is just icing on the cake, and it appears that there will be plenty of icing to be had. Every poll released Monday projected that the UMP will win enough seats in the second and final round to hold at least a commanding three-quarter majority, with some polls estimating that the UMP could hold more than 500 of the National Assembly's 577 seats before all is said and done.

The news is phenomenally good for UMP leader and new French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has an aggressive liberalizing agenda he wants to see passed and implemented as quickly as possible. Among many changes, the agenda includes altering tax laws to encourage investment, loosening France's 35-hour workweek so those who choose to work more can, and limiting the right-to-strike so minimum levels of service are guaranteed for most public services.

That last one is perhaps the most indicative of the scope of Sarkozy's ambition and the challenges he will face in changing what is seen in France as the fundamental relationship between citizen and state. Sarkozy wants to bury the concept that the state exists to take care of the citizenry, preferring instead a more Americanized model in which the state only handles that which the private sector cannot.

Battling Sarkozy will be France's normal alliance of everything from students to public workers, but in that fight they face three major obstacles. One of Sarkozy's first reforms will be to replace every two civil servants with but a single new bureaucrat -- something that has broad support across the populace. Second, the UMP's crushing win will rob any protest or strike of much public legitimacy. Finally, Sarkozy himself has so far been able to leverage every success into a yet greater victory. So yes, Sarkozy appears set to violate French sensibilities more than any French leader since Marie Antoinette, but he is doing so at a point stronger than any French leader since Napoleon.

To make it clear where Stratfor stands, to call modern France a failure is, at its cruelest, a gross exaggeration. Yes, France faces severe cultural issues linked to both its endemic left-right and immigration splits and yes, its socialist-statist economy is not nearly as productive or diverse or as large per capita as its American competitor; but it is still a rich, dynamic country well-entrenched in the international system. Sarkozy's reforms will certainly remove some of the comfort from the average French citizen's life, but -- in theory -- his changes will immeasurably strengthen the French economy. That does not mean the French economic model has failed, just that it has had other objectives.

But French foreign policy the past half-century has been a failure. Initially under Charles de Gaulle and later under Jacques Chirac the dominant Parisian ideology was French exceptionalism, the idea that France merits a voice in international affairs far beyond what its geographic, demographic or economic size would justify. This ideology of Gaullism led Paris to create what is now the European Union; but in doing so it created an entity that Paris ultimately could not control. Too many powers within Europe sported too many different agendas. And while Gaullist France often clashed with the American vision of the world -- a vision many EU members shared -- "Europe" ultimately transformed into a springboard launching French ambition into a cage constraining it.

Sarkozy will need to make a go of adapting France to that harsh reality, and soon, for a new geopolitical age is emerging in Europe. Twenty years ago today then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan boldly said in Berlin, "Mr. Gorbechev, tear down this wall!" That demand was ultimately accepted, ushering in not only the end of the Cold War, but the reunification of Europe's traditional geopolitical center: not France, but Germany.

It also restarted European history after its Cold War deepfreeze. Traditionally the European powers act to contain whichever of their number is the most powerful and aggressive, and in most circumstances that is the one with the most people, industry, technology and money. Now, as has proven traditional throughout much of European history, the power with those characteristics is Germany.

In last 20 years Germany has stitched itself back together bit by bit, and with the emergence of Chancellor Angela Merkel it has finally started to act like what it used to be: a world power. French history has always been defined by how Paris views Berlin, and in the post-World War II era France faced the benign environment of a Germany defeated, split, occupied and lashed to French ambition.

No more. Germany is back.

If Paris is not to suffer role-reversal and become lashed to German ambition it will need two things. First, it will need outside allies. The Entente Cordial with the United Kingdom is a century old and France is called "America's oldest friend" for good reason. Though Washington, London, Paris and Berlin are allies -- and right now, friendly ones -- this is not the normal state of affairs on the Continent.

Second, France needs to be stronger. And that is where Sarkozy hopes his soon-to-be unassailable parliamentary majority will come in very handy indeed.

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