The cream of the French upper class packed into a ballroom at the Cercle de l’Union Interallié, next door to the British ambassador’s residence in the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, on Monday evening to consider the question, “What remains of French influence?”
The two-hour discussion by former foreign minister Hubert Védrine and Renaud Girard, a foreign correspondent and columnist for the conservative newspaper Le Figaro, revealed the attitudes of a certain elite.
Védrine’s advice is valued by French business executives and politicians, including, it is said, by President Emmanuel Macron. His scathing remarks about naive “européistes” and “human rights-ism” have earned him a reputation as a cynic, but his books on geopolitical strategy sell tens of thousands of copies.
Girard laced his commentary with historical references and anecdotes from his years as a war correspondent. He credited Védrine with having invented Gaullo-Mitterrandisme, a philosophy that reconciles the two main families of post-second World War French politics.
The late president Jacques Chirac, quoted by Count Denis de Kergorlay, the president of the Cercle, praised Védrine for combining de Gaulle’s rigour with Mitterrand’s pragmatism. Though de Gaulle and Mitterrand were adversaries, both defended what de Gaulle called “a certain idea of France”.
Védrine pointed out that French influence today is greater than it was after defeat by Germany in 1940, or the loss of Dien Bien Phu in 1958, a decisive moment in the first Indochina War.
Nonetheless, “As far as I am concerned, France has without contest fallen behind (“décroché”), especially in economic and industrial terms,” Védrine continued. “I place myself in the camp that says, ‘Yes, we have fallen behind, but that’s not a reason to give up’.”
Védrine has long advocated dialogue with Russia, a policy espoused by Macron. Former German chancellor Angela Merkel in December said she had not responded adequately to Russian aggression before the invasion of Ukraine. There has been no such soul-searching in Paris.
Girard and Védrine admitted that the invasion has set back Macron’s dream of “strategic autonomy” for Europe. “The Europeans love Nato and only feel protected by Nato,” Girard said.
“With regret, I say that France must stop its endless discourse about European defence and put forward other, more technological priorities,” Védrine said. “As soon as the French talk about European defence, it creates a blockage.”
Girard noted that the war in Ukraine has altered the balance of power within Europe. “Obviously the centre of gravity is no longer in Paris or Brussels,” he said. “Berlin is on the axis of Washington, London, Warsaw and Kyiv, where the dynamism is today.”
Both men seemed to regret the fact that English has become the international lingua franca, and that France was not able to impose French as an international working language.
When the European Economic Community was founded in 1957, Girard said, “We could have made French the sole working language. The Germans would have accepted it ... It was the Belgians who opposed it, for internal political reasons.”
Girard linked the loss of French influence in the EU to Paris’ lack of economic rigour. “France was at the origin of the euro, except that everyone knows she is incapable of respecting the criteria which she herself set up.”
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Neither speaker accepted the idea that the influence of an integrated Europe could replace French influence. “To be influential, France must stand tall. When she is sure of herself and knows she is right, she must not make concessions,” Girard said.
Védrine had a similar vision of French power: “A country which does not defend its interests is not respected when it talks about its values,” he said.
Girard quoted de Gaulle’s philosophy of “allied but not aligned”, the vision of Franco-American relations still practised by Macron. De Gaulle’s withdrawal from Nato’s integrated command in 1966 made France respected, to such an extent that Richard Nixon made his first presidential journey to France.
In the US, Nixon is remembered as a thuggish, unscrupulous leader. In France, many revere him. Védrine called Nixon “a giant of history”, adding that had Nixon rather than Lyndon Johnson been president in 1966, France would probably not have withdrawn from the Nato command.
There is “no real European diplomacy”, Védrine said. “No one takes seriously what Monsieur [Josep] Borrell [the EU’s representative for foreign affairs] says ... The Europeans really believed in the ‘international community’. They think the nations are united, the UN, you know, they believe in those things. I say they are teddy bears in the world of Jurassic Park, in the real world.”
France must not “play the game” of European institutions, Védrine added, but “develop French influence” within those institutions.
Germany has asked France to transform its seat on the UN Security Council, which was hard-won by de Gaulle, into a common EU seat. “What would happen if France gave up its seat?” Védrine asked. “Would the world be a better place for it?” Europe would end up abstaining on everything, he added, because EU member states cannot agree on foreign policy. The UK would not give up its seat, and it would be impossible to reach agreement on enlarging the council.
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France will not restore lost influence abroad “until she makes order at home”, Girard said to applause. In 2018, he recalled, world leaders gathered at the Arc de Triomphe on November 11th to commemorate the centenary of the first World War armistice. “Three weeks later, the same Arc de Triomphe was vandalised by French rioters.”