Will Ties to Europe Tighten or Loosen?
European integration has been a core goal of France since the early 1950s at the same time that the nation has advanced its individual sovereign stance and the French have cherished a vigorous patriotism. The wish, indeed, the need to forever banish the resort to war, which had ravaged the Continent so brutally twice in the 20th century by uniting, first, the economies, and later, the social, political, and security systems of Europe launched the drive for continental cooperation, whose goal was to ensure peace and prosperity for all. The basis for progress rested with close French and German cooperation, because reconciliation between the two old enemies was an essential precondition for efforts to prove successful. Today that foundation remains the lynchpin for progress, because the two possess Western Europe’s largest continental economies.
Two of the founding fathers of the European Union (EU), Jean Monnet and MRP politician and twice premier (1947–48) Robert Schuman (1886–1963), were in the forefront of initial efforts at regional integration. In the 1950s, the European Coal and Steel Community, the European Atomic Energy Agency, and the European Economic Community were all created with active French participation, and the country played a vital part in the subsequent history of cooperative efforts.
France welcomed new member states; instigated the Single European Act in 1986, which ensured the free movement of people, goods, and capital; negotiated the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, which widened supranational powers within the new institutional framework of the EU; and adopted the euro, which replaced the franc, as its cur-rency in 2002.
But, countercurrents against stronger cooperative efforts in defense of specifically French self-interests continue to exert a strong influence. Politicians on both extremes of the political spectrum, including Le Pen on the right and Jean-Pierre Chevènement (1930– ), a former minister of defense (1988–91) and minister of the interior (1997–2000) on the left, have advocated a reassertion of French independent prerogatives.
General de Gaulle attempted to shape integration in his own image as a Europe of loosely linked sovereign states, and today the union that ardent integrationists foresee as a Europe ruled by a powerful central authority to which nations have abdicated significant powers is a vision by no means shared by all. Significant segments of public opinion balk at too great a surrender of sovereignty to a supranational European author-ity. Resentment runs deep at unelected bureaucrats at EU headquarters in Brussels making decisions with no accountability to constituents and, critics assert, no knowledge of local conditions or concerns.
Only just more than 51 percent of voters approved ratification of the Maastricht Treaty in a referendum in September 1992. In 2005, a referendum on the treaty to establish a constitution for Europe was rejected by the public by a margin of 55 percent to 45 percent. In 2007, the constitutional proj-ect was abandoned, and existing treaties were amended instead.
While governments of both left and right have supported closer inte-gration since the 1970s, they have never hesitated, when they deemed it necessary, to interject strong defense of what they perceive to be French national interests. President Sarkozy’s opposition to the admission of Turkey, considered insufficiently ready in terms of economic strength and democratic political maturity, testifies to the country’s determination to shape the future EU in what it sees to be France’s best interests.
The ongoing debate between those who wish to maintain a strong national independence and those who see France’s future in a strength-ened European Union is starkly evident in the realm of national defense and security, issues of particular pride to advocates of French self-identity. Long a larger player in international affairs, France has proved reluctant to allow the EU to speak for itself in these matters, making it difficult to move ahead in the professed goal of common EU foreign and defense policies.
While a broad consensus accepts that the country’s future lies within the EU, debate continues on the kinds and the amount of power on the overall future course of continental institutions. Although it will always have a large voice in policy determination within a united Europe, France will inevitably have to yield some greater degree of sovereignty if political and military integration is to deepen. Reality rules as well in considering the country’s future status in world affairs.