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Timofey Bordachev: Emmanuel Macron might be a clown, but he’s a dangerous clown

French elites are traumatised by the decline of their country, and their leader is throwing his toys out of the pram

France’s position on the world stage today is in a rather strange state of affairs: a country with a solid nuclear arsenal but which has lost all ability to influence its environment. Over the last few decades, Paris has lost what remains of its former greatness on the world stage, ceded its leading position within the European Union to Germany, and completely abandoned the principles needed for its internal development. In other words, the protracted crisis of the Fifth Republic has reached a stage where the lack of solutions to the many problems that have long been overdue is turning into a full-blown identity crisis.

The reasons for this situation are clear, but the outcome is difficult to predict. And the clownish behaviour of President Emmanuel Macron is only a consequence of the general deadlock in French politics, as is the very appearance of this figure at the head of the state, which used to be led by grandees of world politics such as Charles de Gaulle or François Mitterrand.

The last time Paris demonstrated an ability to act on its own in a really important decision was in 2002-2003. At the time, it opposed US plans to illegally invade Iraq. French diplomacy, then led by the aristocrat Dominique de Villepin, was able to form a coalition with Germany and Russia and deprive the American attack of any international legitimacy. The US attempt to unite in its person dominant power capabilities and decisive influence on the right to use them in world politics, i.e. to establish a unipolar world order, failed. This was denied them at the energetic instigation of France, and such an important step in the creation of a democratic world order will be credited to Paris by future historians. 

But that was the end of it. The moral victory in the UN Security Council in February-March 2003 played the same role in France’s destiny as the bloody victory in the First World War, after which the country could no longer remain one of the world’s great powers. Not only the harsh external circumstances, but also the rapid plunge into internal problems, which have not been resolved for almost 20 years, contributed to further decline. Successive presidents were initially unable to adapt the country to the challenges, the causes of which were largely beyond their reach. This was all the more the case as the mid-2000s saw a generational change in politics, with people coming to power who had neither the experience of the Cold War nor the “training” of the generation of leaders who founded modern France.

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The “perfect storm” was a combination of several factors. First, society was changing faster than anywhere else in Europe, and the political system of the Fifth Republic was becoming obsolete. Second, there was a loss of control over the basic parameters of economic policy, which were increasingly determined by the country’s participation in the Common Market and, more importantly, the eurozone. Thirdly, the fading of the dream of political union within the EU led to the re-emergence of Germany, a country that lacked the full sovereignty to undertake such a major project on its own. Finally, the world was changing rapidly. It was no longer centred on Europe, which meant that there was no place for France in the list of great powers. 

The attention-seeking of the man who is now formally at the head of the French state are only personal symptoms of the crisis in which the country finds itself. As a result, everything is out of the hands of the current government, and the sheer number of built-in issues is turning anger into meaningless hysteria. Petty intrigues not only accompany big politics, which is always the case, but replace it. The principle of “not to be, but to seem to be” becomes the main driver of state action. France can no longer find a way out of the systemic crisis in the most historically familiar way – revolutionary. 

Indeed, France is a country that has never been characterised by internal stability. Since the Great French Revolution of 1789, accumulated internal tensions have traditionally found an outlet in revolutionary events, accompanied by bloodshed and major adjustments to the political system. France’s great achievements in political philosophy and literature are a product of this constant revolutionary tension – creative thought works best in moments of crisis, anticipating or overcoming them. It is precisely because of its revolutionary nature that France has been able to produce ideas that have been applied on a global scale, raising its presence in world politics far above what it would otherwise deserve. These ideas include the construction of European integration on the model of the French school of government, the oligarchic conspiracy of the richest and most armed powers known as the G7, and many others.

In the 20th century, two world wars became an outlet for the revolutionary energy of the people – France was on the winning side of one and lost the second badly, but miraculously found itself among the subsequent winners. Then came the collapse of the empire, but the losses it caused were partly compensated for by the neo-colonial methods applied by the whole of Western Europe to its former overseas possessions. In Europe itself, France has until recently played a leading role in determining major issues such as foreign trade policy and technical assistance programmes. The main reason for the end of France’s era of revolutionary choices were the institutions of the collective West – NATO and European integration – that it helped create. Gradually, but consistently, they reduced the scope for independent decision-making by the French political elite. At the same time, these restrictions were not simply imposed from outside; they were the product of the solutions that Paris itself found to maintain its influence in world politics and economics, to benefit from the strengthening of Germany’s economy and status and to exploit, together with Berlin, the poor European east and south.

But not everything was under control from the start. The foreign policy upheavals of the first half of the last century spared the country new revolutions, but they left it morally exhausted and humiliatingly dependent on the United States, which the French have traditionally despised. Even now, unlike other Western Europeans, they are uncomfortable with American hegemony. And this only adds to the drama of the situation in Paris, which can neither resist nor fully accept US oppression. The period of Macron’s presidency saw the cruellest lesson taught to the French by their overseas partners: in September 2021, the Australian government rejected a prospective order for a series of submarines from Paris in favour of a new alliance with the US and Britain.

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The era of comparative calm and dynamism of the 1950s provided the material basis for the colossal system of social guarantees that most outside observers associate with modern France. A stable pension system, a huge public sector and the obligations of employers to their workers are the foundations of the welfare state that was created. Since human memories are short and contemporaries tend to absolutise their impressions, this is how we perceive France – well-fed and well-maintained.

The stability and prosperity of the majority of the population are attributes of a relatively short period of French history – no more than 40 years of good times (1960s-1990s), during which the political system of the Fifth Republic was created and flourished. Irreversible processes in the economy began with the global crisis of the late 2000s and gradually led to problems common in the West, such as the erosion of the middle class and the shrinking capacity of the state to maintain a system of social obligations. In the mid-2010s, France became the European champion in terms of the total debt of the economy, reaching 280% of GDP, and the public debt is now 110% of GDP. The main reason for these statistics is the huge social spending, which leads to chronic budget deficits.

The inability to solve these problems, combined with the destruction of the traditional structure of society, has led to the crisis of the party system. The traditional parties – the Socialists and the Republicans – are now close to, or have already crossed, the threshold of organisational collapse. In the new economy – with the contraction of industry, the growth of the financial and service sectors, and the individualisation of citizens’ participation in economic life – the social base of forces based on coherent political programmes is shrinking. A result of this process was the electoral victory of Emmanuel Macron, the then little-known candidate of the “Forward!” movement, in May 2017. Since then, his party has been renamed twice: “Forward, Republic!” in 2017 and “Renaissance” from 5 May 2022. Macron himself was re-elected president in 2022, again beating the right-wing candidate Marine Le Pen. Who is herself an outsider to the traditional system.

During Macron’s time in the Elysee Palace, the seat of the head of state since 1848, there has been two types of news coming out of France to the outside world. Firstly, reports of mass demonstrations, resulting in no change. Second, loud statements on foreign policy that have never been followed by equally decisive action.

A year after Macron came to power, the country was rocked by the so-called “yellow vests” – citizens angered by plans to raise the price of diesel fuel and then by all government initiatives in the social sphere.

In particular, proposals to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64. At the beginning of 2023, the government returned to this issue and new mass demonstrations swept the country. In the summer of that year, the suburbs of major cities, largely populated by the descendants of Arabs and Africans from former colonies, went up in flames. The majority of the rioters were second and third generation immigrants, demonstrating the total failure of policies to integrate them into French society. In all cases, the official representatives of the workers – the trade unions and the Socialist Party – were unable to play a significant role in controlling the protests or negotiating with the authorities. As a result, the government raised the retirement age by two years, Macron’s biggest achievement so far in the area of social security reform. Between the two rounds of unrest came the coronavirus pandemic, which gave the authorities a couple of years of relative calm almost everywhere. The main result of French domestic politics in recent years has been the absence of both meaningful results from protest activity and serious reforms, which by all accounts the country desperately needs. Apathy is becoming the main feature of public life in France.

An active foreign policy could partially compensate for internal stagnation. But it requires money and at least relative independence. France currently has neither. This is probably why the amount of direct aid that Paris has given to the Kiev regime remains the lowest of any developed Western country – €3 billion, or ten times less than Germany, for example. Incidentally, it is precisely this inability to invest more seriously in the Ukrainian conflict that many associate with Macron’s emotional rhetoric towards both Russia and his supposed allies in Berlin.

Paris more than makes up for its lack of money with loud statements. In 2019, Macron drew global attention by saying NATO had suffered “brain death”. This, of course, stirred emotions among Russian and Chinese observers, but did not lead to any practical action. We simply did not know the new French president well at the time, for whom the connection between words and their consequences not only does not exist, but does not even seem necessary in principle.

It was amusing enough to see French diplomats and experts calling on Russia to limit its public and private presence in Africa between 2020 and 2021. Macron himself has consistently reduced France’s commitments on the continent throughout his time in the Elysee Palace. In the summer of 2023, Niger’s new military government responded calmly to Paris’ calls for African countries to overthrow it. Unable to influence the situation in the country, France closed its embassy on 2 January 2024, finally acknowledging the failure of its policy in the region.

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However, to compensate for the de facto withdrawal from a region that has traditionally provided the French economy with cheap raw materials, Macron is looking for new and promising partnerships. Security agreements have recently been signed with official Kiev and Moldova, and there are ongoing talks with the authorities in Armenia. But none of this is producing practical results. Ukraine is firmly controlled by the Americans and their British cronies, Moldova is a poor country without natural resources, and Armenia is sandwiched between Turkey and Azerbaijan, states with which France does not have very good relations. In its current state, Paris generally looks like an ideal sparring partner for governments eager to show their independence. France is big enough for angry words against it to be widely circulated in the media, but too weak to punish excessive insolence. The only interlocutors who now look to Paris with respect are Chisinau and Yerevan, although a biased observer might doubt the latter’s sincerity.

Afterword

The author of these lines has deliberately chosen not to focus on the latest foreign policy brainwave of France and its president – a wide-ranging discussion of the possibility of direct military involvement by a NATO country in the Ukraine conflict. It is, of course, possible that such a high-profile statement was a “clever move” designed to revive discussions within the bloc about the limits of what is possible in the confrontation with Russia, a provocative cry for attention in the election campaign for the European Parliament, or simply a way of keeping the French elite busy. Nevertheless, there is nothing good about Paris’s behaviour: it shows that at a certain stage the game of slogans can reach areas where the risks become too high. And given that modern France is incapable of anything but words, it is frightening to think of the heights of rhetorical participation in global politics that its president is capable of reaching. Given that Paris has some 300 nuclear weapons of its own, even the minimal probability that Macron’s babble will take material form deserves the harshest and most immediate response.

 

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