Une certaine idée de la France ?

It’s interesting that Emmanuel’s remarks about biased statistics about the French economy in Anglophone publications led to some comments trying to asses the extent to which France is perceived as “the other”, at least as far as “the West” is concerned. There have always been claims about a natural rivalry of the two main “universalist” western polities, France and the US, but there was, in my opinion, never too much hard evidence for such a claim. Still, intellectual traditions as well as institutionalised myths are often a very powerful element of public discourse, and sometimes even assume a certain life of their own if there are enough believers. In this case, there certainly are.

Since France will begin the process of electing a new President this Sunday, and since “Europe” wasn’t exactly a prominent subject on any candidate’s campaign agenda, I thought I share thoughts I once compiled with respect to the Europeanization of the French “other”, some parts of which have already been included in my guest post (in French) at publius.fr a couple of days before the now notorious French referendum on the European Constitution in 2005.

For Kolboom/Stark (1999: 443), of all nations, it is probably France, which has the most precise concept of itself and its appropriate position in the world – not just de Gaulle had “une certaine idée de la France”. His certain idea is still at the centre of political discourse and action in France – but its precise content is currently more open to discussion than ever before. However, while the discoursive relevance of the idea flourished, the nation-state’s empiric political and especially economic importance decreased significantly.

For all European polities struggling with their reduced factual sovereignty, European integration is both part of the problem and part of the solution, because it is at the same time an element of and – possibly – opposed the multifaceted process of globalisation. But France’s specific cultural-historic context offers more than enough reasons why France has difficulties to perceive increased global economic and political interdependence as a challenge rather than a threat – why the French universalist identity is bound to resist the perceived cultural and economic dominance of American universalism whether (allegedly) disguised as “mondialisation” or its kinder, gentler version – “Europeanisation”.

The specific French problem is, according to Elie Cohen, a series of either unaddressed or at least unresolved tensions – most notably, the discrepancy between the discoursive rejection and the constant, albeit imperceptible factual acceptance of globalisation and Europeanisation.

No political force has yet been able to begin a serious debate to reconcile the French notion of the nation(-state) with its Europeanised political and economic reality, because of the challenge this allegedly presents to the French post-war social consensus and its institutions.

Several scholars note that the memory of the near-revolution of 1968 (and, likewise, the strikes of 1995) is still very much alive in France – and now there’s also the memory of the Presidential election of 2002, the referendum of May 2005, and the burning cars in November of that year.

Continuity and change of the “certain idea” as well as the ambiguous nature of Europeanisation explain much of the inconsistent, if not contradictory, history of France’s attitude towards European integration. On the one hand, at times, France has emerged as an ardent driving force behind European integration, on the other hand, at different times, France adamantly blocked further integration and sought to exploit the partnership for blatantly nationalist causes.

For the political scientist Alain Guyomarch, after 1945, “Europe” emerged for France as “… both a “myth” – an ideal in its own right – and a “method” – an instrument for achieving other objectives…” (Guyomarch/Machin, 1992: 62). Despite considerable conflicts about form and extent of co-operation, even despite de Gaulle’s nationalist discourse and politics, there was a general consensus concerning increased European interdependence. Protectionism was perceived as a major source of conflict in the interwar-period.

Thus, for a long time, the myth “Europe”, a strong metaphor for peace and prosperity, provided a permissive consensus allowing to avoid any serious public discourse, to identify Europe with the economic growth of “les trentes glorieuses” (the thirty years of immense growth and socio-economic change following WW2) and to interpret European integration simply as an extension of French “grandeur”.

But from the economic u-turn in 1983 on, certainly after the end of the cold war in 1989 had most dramatically altered the geo-strategic reality, public and elite perceptions of “Europe” changed. Europeanization was no longer simply regarded as a “free lunch” for France but in a more differentiated manner – as a development which had not only delivered peace and growth but increasingly questioned many features of the French polity.

The European regulatory framework, the common market and later especially the monetary union, looked, as they emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, quite different from what France was used to. The problematic political manoeuvring prior of the French political elite, particularly the now parting President Chirac, prior to the Maastricht refernendum in 1992, was the first symptom of an illness that plagued political France ever since. The general consensus about the benefits of European integration became increasingly fragile. Today, a considerable part of the French elite openly shares some of the Euroscepticism of the public.

– pt 2 tomorrow –

4 thoughts on “Une certaine idée de la France ?

  1. In this case, there certainly are. De Gaulle’

    Since France will begin the process of electing…

    I’m pretty sure you have an HTML snag here. Feel free to delete this comment once you fix it.

  2. Hmn. I suspect that there is a rivalry between the US and France simply because they are both revolutionary states. In their current form they were both hugely influenced by a radical revolution at the centre of which lied certain ideals which the patriotic Frenchman and the American are expected to confirm to.

    Like all revolutionary states it is not long before there is a huge disconnect between the ideals they were founded upon and the present reality. Everywhere from the soviet union, to china, to France and America, that goes down the revolutionary path seems to suffer from this disconnect. And these revolutionary states are always imbued with a sense of national mission that leads them to all sorts of misguided foreign adventures and in general attempts to impose their will on the world.

    Speaking as a confirmed UKian eurosceptic, it seems like a splendid idea to distance ourselves from all constitutions (european and otherwise) or indeed any embodiments of any ideals at a state level. These kind of values should be left to the individual! The first language of the republic is french, indeed. I suspect this is partly why the UK and France very often have fallings out as well – UKian pragmatism and french idealism don’t mix.

    France will feel threatened by Europe unless it can either get rid of its top-down cultural mentality, where citizens confirm to the state’s ideals, or else shape Europe to be a larger expression of France itself. The latter would be a disaster for Europe at large. Hopefully UK foreign policy will continue to focus on broadening the EU, and we can continue to be enthusiastic sponsors of states such as Turkey, and therefore make it less likely that France can impose its revolutionary ideals on Europe at large, and thwart any deeper integration of the EU to boot.

  3. I think there is a fundamental disconnect between the values of the European Union and the French state. The European Union believes in multiculturalism and the protection of different languages and cultures, while the French state has configured the French language and French cultural norms as integral components of the state.

    As long as the French believe in centralization and the necessity of French language primacy, they will inevitably come into conflict with the ideals of the EU.

    I don’t think it is an accident that France (and Andorra) are the only EU countries that haven’t ratified the charter on Regional or Minority Languages. The suppression of other languages and political centralization are seen as integral parts of the French state, and this will inevitably conflict with EU ideals.

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