France in the eye of the storm!

The “cataclysm” born from the pandemic is conferring on the European Union a role of “catalyser” in the articulation of the measures designed to support the recovery; it may be a new example of a salutary crisis enabling the EU to make decisive progress. The ambiguous results of the recent French municipal elections reinforce considerably the pressure on Member States to choose between a shared European sovereignty and, alternatively, following an independent course leading to the inevitable demise of the EU.

Commentators seem fairly unanimous in considering that abstention was the main feature of a poll that usually enjoys a high rate of participation due to the preponderance of local issues. With an average 60% rate of abstentions, the main looser is “democracy” because it reveals, despite the unchallengeable legitimacy of the 36.000 elected local councils (non-voters beware), the unprecedented depth of the divide between those elected and their constituents. Neither the health scare nor the 3 months deferral of the second round of polling can fully explain the notable increase in this disinterest on behalf of the elector; rather, it is a trend which is further evidence of a regime fighting for survival.

That is why the results should be analysed with care, avoiding to pay too much attention to the pronouncements of politicians or other commentators who – after having voiced trite regrets – ignore the opinion (abstention) of a significant majority of constituents. One should also point out that the “green wave” (7 large towns conquered in coalition with other left leaning parties) totalled a mere 250.000 votes, not something to write home about in view of the 2022 presidential elections.

The growing chiasm between the elector and the executive, legislative and judicial powers can be explained by a feeling of helplessness of citizens unable to weigh on the course of events. The proliferation of power structures hinders to often either the strict separation of powers or, where required, the smooth coordination of their actions. Recent examples concern the suspicion of the judiciary interfering with the 2017 presidential election process or the lack of coherence in the articulation of the response to the pandemic.

As a result, citizens are tempted to fall back on alternative actions such as the “yellow jackets” movement or manifestations against reforming the retirement system with their complement of violent disturbances or recourse to other poorly regulated, notably social networks. Nevertheless, some of these channels can have positive results such as the numerous gestures of solidarity at the height of the pandemic or the studious participation in the “Citizen’s convention on the climate”. This only encourages the idea that results – good or bad – are achieved by circumventing the electoral process, fostering mass abstention.

President Macron has logically concluded – staying within the bounds of Republican values – that time has come to “reinvent” the future, a concept he is supposed to apply in priority to himself. This new path is evidenced by the recent government reshuffle needed not only to give a new impulse to the executive team in preparation for the presidential elections but mainly to take into account a totally unprecedented situation cumulating major urgencies in the health, economic, social and geopolitical fields. This imposes on governmental and administrative authorities as well as on the political opposition and the civil society to cooperate in the public interest; the gravity of the situation should prevent any of the responsible parties to indulge in “scoring points”.

In this context one should point out that the French government (as well as many others) has already committed and announced the mobilisation of record resources in order to confront the ongoing and future crisis. Never before has such financial muscle been deployed with the aim of limiting the consequences of the pandemic.

It behoves all actors involved to coordinate their efforts at every level if the burden caused by this – now inevitable – “cataclysm” is to be shared equitably. One should aim at protecting, insofar as possible, those most exposed to health hazards and/or economic hardship while ensuring simultaneously that all the measures implemented are compatible with overarching environmental imperatives.

Managing the crisis is a challenge to be carried out transparently over the medium term: thus, considering the overriding need to retain access to financial resources over time, one should deal prudently with immediate pressures, however legitimate seemingly urgent demands might be. For example, French public opinion, recognizing the well-grounded rational for the € 8.5 billion (budgetary) commitment to the health service, considers it poorly in relation to a € 7 billion rescue (loan) of Air France because they suspect arbitrarily that, due to the parlous state of the airline, substantial additional (and excessive) aid will be forthcoming. However, once unemployment soars in the autumn, should one not expect that even the underpaid workers who have demonstrated their vital importance as well as their exceptional dedication during the pandemic, will suddenly be viewed as privileged by those who have lost their jobs? Facing massive inevitable job losses, a belligerent attitude egged on by Trade Unions will only aggravate the lot of the most vulnerable and foster social unrest.

Nevertheless, in these complicated times, the pandemic might turn out to be a “catalyser” giving a new sense of hope of overcoming the excesses of individualism, corporatism and communitarism that have plagued our society and massively contributed to exploding inequalities over the last decades.

Without even considering the damage wrought by a second wave of the pandemic, it is already obvious that the State cannot be made responsible for everything. As masterfully explained in a recent TV interview on the LCI channel, the Governor of the French National Bank pointed out that the belief in the unlimited capacity of the ECB to underwrite the European sovereign debt market is a myth. To overcome the crisis, France and its 18 partners must strive to keep the market’s confidence in the € in order to raise the enormous amounts of debt needed to keep social cohesion through the still very uncertain period of recovery.

The € being a shared currency, no Eurozone Member can act on its own, making the unanimous adoption of the Commission’s € 750 billion “Recovery plan” (as well as the plurennial 2021-27 budget) both urgent and inescapable. Indeed, only the mutualization of the extra indebtedness caused by the Covid19 can avoid that difficulties, encountered eventually by one of the Members, might destabilize the €, a common good belonging to all its citizens. This is precisely what Chancellor Merkel has understood when she decided to incorporate the project into the German presidency’s agenda.

All Member States are therefor facing an “irrevocable” and “irreversible” choice:

  • The 19 Eurozone Members – due to Covid19 and for the foreseeable future – being objectively unable to meet the requirements that have underpinned the €’s credibility, find themselves having to choose between the transfer (federalization) of significant swaths of their economic and fiscal sovereignty on the one hand and the disbandment of the € on the other.
  • For the 8 non-Members, the absolute priority must be accession to the Eurozone (a treaty obligation). The advantages of a single currency for the whole of the EU outweigh by far the temporary drawbacks, even if achieving it means compromising with the “Copenhagen criteria”. Refusal to join should signify their withdrawal from the EU.

On the assumption that public opinion would oppose by a large majority the dismantling of the €, as demonstrated by the approval rating of the Euro, the solidarity demonstrated by the EU 27 would deliver significant advantages among which:

  • Allow the EU to acquire the status of a major world power on the international stage alongside the USA and China.
  • Facilitate an in depth Treaty change leading to the adoption of a federal inspired political architecture.
  • Remove definitively the spectre of a redenomination of the €. Stabilizing of the currency would help freeing progressively European financial markets from the ascendency of the USD which confers on the USA an exorbitant influence over world geopolitics and the economy.
  • Install the ECB as the Union’s Central Bank, responsible to the European Parliament and able to coordinate its monetary policy with the economic and fiscal policies of the EU.
  • Develop the Union’s “own resources” and accelerate the transfer of additional competencies to EU level such as defence, immigration or the sharing of sovereignty in the fields of health, production and supply of strategic goods, etc., the need for which was made amply clear by the pandemic.

In conclusion, in opposition to this constructive vision of the pandemic’s effects, that many will judge utopic, one should not underestimate the power of dyed in the wool Nationalists who will make every effort to ensure the failure of the project whose success would mark the end of their hopes to come to power. Indeed, in a globalised world, “national-populism” can only thrive behind closed borders, protecting authoritarian regimes whose ideologies oppose the values of democracy and freedom that we enjoy – and sometimes abuse – since the latest worldwide cataclysm spanning the years 1914 to 1945.

This question of the choice between a purely illusory “national sovereignty” and a shared effective “European sovereignty” must be addressed by each Member State. In France however, it takes on a singular connotation because, in addition to the proclaimed Europhobic stance of its extremist parties, the European question divides profoundly most of the other political parties. The political and intellectual elites – whatever their proclaimed support for the Union may be – are, in their great majority, in favour of a “French Europe” at a time when only a “European France” can deliver to its citizens both the level of economic and security protection required as well as propagate throughout the continent the cultural and civilizational values of “Eternal France”!

Brussels, July 10th 2020

Paul N. Goldschmidt

Director, European Commission (ret.); Member of the Advisory Council of  “Stand Up for Europe”.


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