The temptation to return to De Gaulle

29.07.17 Publication:

General de Gaulle: a tall, proud,  somewhat pompous nationalist who sees himself as being free to take his own initiatives. Such a stance is admirable in its way. But he needs to make sure he doesn’t end up more like Donald Trump than Charles de Gaulle.

The French president has shown his Gaullist manner over the St Nazaire shipyards, of course, but also over migrants, Libya, military budgets and even his invitation to President Trump to join him in Paris on Bastille Day. For all his liberal and pro-European credentials, no one should be surprised at this.

That a French government prefers naval shipyards to be controlled by the French state rather than an Italian state-owned company is hardly a shock. The outrage expressed by Carlo Calenda and other Italian politicians is mere hypocrisy.

France is only doing what Italy would have done, if it were in the same position, and has done many times (if fruitlessly) over Alitalia, Telecom Italia and other rather less strategic symbols of the Italian nation. The only real change is that Italy currently feels too weak, politically and economically, to match France’s behaviour. Some may say that if French companies can buy Italian luxury firms, Italian ones should be free to buy French shipbuilders, but handbags and aircraft carriers are not exactly the same thing.

Macron’s behaviour also fits, unfortunately, with a wider European reality. This is that nationalism and populism are just as strong as they were before his electoral victories in May and June, for it is too soon for anything more European and liberal to have superseded them.

This can be seen, for example, in Austria, where parliamentary elections are due to be held in October, following the government’s collapse in May. The two parties leading the opinion polls are the centre-right Austrian People’s Party and the far-right Freedom Party: the 30-year-old leader of the People’s Party, Sebastian Kurz, is often compared with Macron but he is taking a strongly anti-immigrant, nationalistic line in the election campaign, just as he did as foreign minister.

It may shortly be seen in Sweden, too, if the current government crisis leads to early general elections. There the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats are running at over 20% in most opinion polls, well up from their 13% result in the 2014 election and more or less level with the governing Socialist Party. The possibility that such a far-right group may form part of a right-wing coalition government after elections can no longer be discounted.

Moreover, the nationalist instinct can also be seen in the hostile European, actually mainly German, reaction to the US Congress’s efforts to tighten sanctions on Russia. Normally, Germany has expressed worries that a Trump-directed America will be too weak on Russia, not too strong. But these sanctions threaten a commercial German interest in the Nordstream 2 gas pipeline, so nationalism has so far triumphed over either principle or a sense of collective European interest.

Everyone, perhaps, is waiting for Germany to hold its federal elections in September and safely re-elect the leader of the liberal, pro-EU world, Angela Merkel as its chancellor. Then the promised land of a new Franco-German collaboration to revive Europe and promote liberal policies will be reached.

Let us hope. But the reality is harsher: economic recovery in the Eurozone is under way, but it will take several years before it really alters public opinion in a profoundly more positive, confident and open-minded direction. Meanwhile the pressures of all the crises that provoked nationalism and populism in the first place – migrants, Russia, declining living standards, fiscal austerity – remain strong.

That is why President Macron is making so many rather assertive, nationalistic moves. His own popularity is declining, and his task in reforming France is enormous. In the face of that, impatience is understandable. But there is a risk in moving too fast, and in ignoring the views of European partners.

The risk is that some or all of his initiatives may stumble and fail, and reveal that neither he nor his government had thought them through properly, destroying or at least damaging his reputation for competence and effectiveness. That risk is particularly high over Libya and over the new president’s relationship with a French military whose chief officer, Pierre de Villiers, has already resigned over a budgetary dispute.

Macron does not announce his policies on Twitter, unlike his American counterpart. But he is showing some of the same signs of impetuousness as Trump, and some of the same carelessness about consultation. General de Gaulle would be particularly unhappy to see his successor share the fate of such an uncivilized American president.