France, in front of its geopolitical mirror: the endless search for lost “greatness”


Is France in decline? The French seem to have understood this. 75% think the country is in decline, and a third of them also believe that it is irreversible. Also 72% say that their life is increasingly inspired by the values ​​of the past. It’s not a one-time problem. The data has been on repeat, with slight variations, for a decade, when pollster IPSOS began formulating this question in its “French Fractures” report, the latest wave of which was in August 2021. The once-proud French powerhouse look obsessively today in front of the geopolitical mirror and he is not convinced by what he sees.

All candidates with options of dethrone Emmanuel Macron in the upcoming April presidential elections – from far-right Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour to far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon to conservative Valérie Pécresse – echoed this sentiment in their speeches, because they both didn’t make it the president himself.

“I listen to some people who think that our country is in decline, that the worst is yet to come, that our civilization is fading“, warned in 2016 the candidate Macron at the time, who launched his candidacy with a speech that appeals to discomfort and pessimism which already covered French society.

Macron wanted to be the answer to the loss of the epic “grandeur” that once illuminated (in French eyes) the whole world, while acknowledging the problems the country faced. “Today, France is straying from the path of progressdoubt has set in”, sentenced.

Thus, since his arrival at the Elysée, the president has tried to reverse this public perception with a hyperactive diplomatic style and a frontal discourse. Macron has tried to reclaim Paris muscle on the international stage, but the results are far from his side. Macron embarked on a personal mission to save Lebanon from itself, failing miserably in his attempt; he tried to redirect the crisis in Mali and ended up withdrawing the troops, and in his custody France lost a million dollar contract for the sale of submarines after US, UK and Australia will agree behind their backs the Aukus defense deal, which leaves Paris in a marginal position in the Indo-Pacific and has taken relations with the United States to their lowest point in decades. The country, some lament, failed to even produce a vaccine after the failed attempt by pharmaceutical company Sanofi.

Interview with Macron: “I’m not going to change my rights because they offend elsewhere”

The Great Continent

Despite the setbacks, Macron has never stopped trying to recover for his country a position of pre-eminence and firmness. We have seen him engage in a dialectical and diplomatic brawl with the United Kingdom over migration and symbolic fishing quotas in the Channel; to be the first Western leader in meet Vladimir Putin to defuse the crisis between Russia and Ukraine after having previously unceremoniously declared the “brain death” of NATO.

If the French want to return to to feel in control of one’s destiny and reclaim the global voice they believe is theirs by some sort of historical right, Macron’s five-year term shows that it is no easy task.

towers with greatness

Let’s start by trying to understand what is ‘greatness’ and where it comes from.

“From Charles de Gaulle! And for the love of history”, exclaims without hesitation Michel Duclos, former French ambassador to Brussels, Syria and the UN, when asked about the origin of the concept. “The French are passionate about their past much larger than Spanish“, he continues in conversation with El Confidencial.

The general De Gaulle never developed the term very precisely, but an emergency definition could be France’s ability to act at the level required by its history In capital letters. And as he wrote in his memoirs, “France cannot be France without its ‘greatness’.

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Lucas Proto Graphics: Rocio Marquez

Duclos, who has just published “France in the upheaval of the world”, Éditions de l’Observatoire, explains the difficulties of putting words to this self-perception of greatness because it is something people have understood and understand instinctively. However, he tries it in his book: “’Greatness’ is the rediscovery of self-esteem and respect for others”.

When you ask the French what words or impressions come to mind when you think of France’s foreign policy, happy ‘greatness’ appears barely tiny in a word cloud dominated by responses such as “good”, “mediocre”, “excessive”, “France” and “not at all”, according to a December Harris Interactive poll. According to Gaullist logic, only 21% of those questioned believe that France has risen to the height of the Ukrainian crisis, according to the same survey.

And when was this historical and geopolitical appeal lost? For the historian and director of the French Institute of International Relations, Thomas Gomart, the last France’s great period of international splendor ended in 1991, with the implosion of the Soviet camp and the —official— end of the Cold War. Until then, Paris had been able to maintain a certain independence and “a leeway within the system of post-war alliances, whether in NATO or in the process of European integration”, underlines the expert. .

France became free verse in post-war Europe. This diplomatic independence came to replace, for a time, the imperial status lost with the decolonization which resulted in Independence from Algeria in 1962. But after the fall of the Berlin Wall, France gradually and definitively aligned itself with Europe and US-led globalization. What was first a colonial power and then a nuclear power was relegated to the “ranking” of world powers and its geopolitical personality blurred by EU filter. “I think this cycle closed with the coronavirus crisis,” Gomart says of the geopolitical turbulence France has experienced in recent months.

One foot in yesterday’s world, one in tomorrow’s

Today, France retains the vestiges of its “greatness” in the form of permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, the sixth highest GDP in the world and the eighth largest military investment budget, according to the Stockholm International Institute for Peace Studies (Sipri). For the French, this is not enough and they consider that increase the weight of your country worldwide is expected to increase spending on intelligence (48%), defense (44%) and development aid (40%).

The change in historical context was not the only element of the equation. At the beginning of the 20th century, France and its European allies represented 25% of the world’s population, a percentage that it’s already below 10% and will continue to decline in the decades to come. This decline causes “a mechanical phenomenon of withdrawal”, which is not the same thing as a decline, “a notion with very political connotations”, according to Gomart.

The global system has become denser and far exceeds the adaptability of a country like France, and even the whole of the EU. France and Europe must develop a grand strategy that tries to think beyond electoral mandates. In foreign policy, we must work with our objectives set for 2050,” explains the expert.

Thus, Macron’s diplomatic actions they do not represent a search for lost “greatness”, considers Gomart, but within the framework of a European strategy to operate in the world of today and especially of tomorrow. President Macron has come to the conclusion that the European model should not be exported, but defended, and he seeks to mobilize the rest of his partners in the European Union towards a plan for strategic autonomy and defence. Something he could play against him in the April elections, despite the fact that the French leader has chosen to make the French presidency of the Council of the EU one more electoral weapon.

Nostalgia or future to write, but always ‘greatness’

“There are political forces that are very clearly in this logic of lost ‘greatness’. Zemmour is obsessed with the past. It matters a lot more to him than the coronavirus, ”explains the expert, who also quotes Le Pen and Mélenchon.

And they will not lack arguments. Macron has just announced the departure of French troops from Mali after nine years anti-terrorist operation, a threat which, according to half of the French, should be the priority of the country’s foreign policy. The abrupt withdrawal comes after disagreements with the military junta which has ruled since last May’s coup and ended a deployment that has seen up to 25,000 troops and cost the lives of 53 soldiers. They leave at a critical moment. Only last year the number of jihadist attacks in the region has increased by 70% and it is at its maximum, according to data from the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, of the United States Department of Defense.

Photo: Hulot, center, looks at Emmanuel Macron at an event in June (REUTERS)
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Maria Tejero Martin

Six years ago, already installed at the Elysée, Macron devoted his first speech to the Cortes gathered in Versailles to retrace his plan to restore the country’s self-esteem“We will give the whole nation the feeling of taking its destiny in hand, the pride of resuming the thread of its history”, he assured in his speech of more than an hour and a half. “France has gone through enough difficulties and known enough ‘greatnesses’ not to be a sleepy little town. Each Frenchman has his share of responsibility and his role in the conquest that awaits him, “he assured then. The stumbles the President’s geopolitics are, in the opinion of former Ambassador Duclos, “the price of ambition”: where things are happening, France should be, and if it doesn’t get there “it doesn’t matter”. That’s why Macron has his eyes on the Indo-Pacific, thousands of miles from Paris, concludes Duclos.

Election polls make it almost certain that Macron will reach the second round of the electionsscheduled for April 19. It is very likely that the rival facing you will bet on a nostalgic look at the French past. Where some seek ‘greatness’ in the pages of history books, the president wants to see her again on every street corner. It remains to be seen what the French prefer at the polls.


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