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Why France isn’t talking about Europe

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No exit from Europe, but also no way to change Europe from within: accepting this dual diagnosis, the vast majority of French citizens have given up on debating the future of the European Union.

In France there’s hardly any mention of the European elections. Public debate is still dominated by the yellow vests and the nation’s possible response to that movement following the “great national debate” initiated by the President at the beginning of 2019. The Notre Dame blaze on April 15 has further prolonged this absence of debate on Europe.

However, the policy pursued by Emmanuel Macron since 2017 is closely tied to European questions. The French president has lowered taxes on the income and wealth of the rich, as well as labour costs (or business taxes), while increasing in turn the burden on the lower and middle classes in order to curb the public deficit. Thus, he shares the dominant view in Europe that reducing public spending and wage deflation are essential prerequisites for any economic recovery.

Macron considers his predecessor François Hollande a failure on this front, because he didn’t move fast or decisively enough in this direction. Indeed, Macron was specifically counting on the pursuit of such policies to strengthen his credibility in the eyes of his peers, and convince them to back the plan for renewed European integration that he proposed in 2017. For the last two years, however, he has obtained virtually nothing on this front, and the yellow vests have managed to sink his grand plans. After such failure in France, Macron hardly seems the man to spur Europe into action.

When it comes to Europe, the French are paralysed. It’s not that they want a Frexit, or to quit the Euro: Marine Le Pen’s disastrous performance in the 2017 presidential election can largely be blamed on her pursuing this line of argument. Since then, the leader of France’s far right has given up on such ideas, and Britain’s misfortunes have convinced most in France that there’s nothing to be gained from them. However, the French have also become convinced that Europe is permanently condemned to a form of social and fiscal dumping which can only lead to yet more poverty, and social and regional inequality — a defining moment in this respect was the 2005 referendum, where France’s rejection of the constitutional treaty was ignored.

No exit from Europe, but also no way to change Europe from within: accepting this dual diagnosis, the vast majority of French citizens have given up on debating the future of the European Union. This is all the more regrettable because the diagnosis is false: Europe can and will change, dramatically, over the coming years. The aggression of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, as well as the growing instability at our borders, will force us (finally) to establish genuine common defence and foreign policies independent of the United States. Trump’s trade policy, and Germany’s trouble with foreign exports, will lead to a radical transformation of economic policy in order to (finally) further the development and growth of internal European demand. On the economic front, as well as that of liberty, our catastrophic dependence on GAFA and increasingly belligerent Chinese multinationals will oblige us to (finally) form a genuine common industrial policy and protect the single European market.

Above all, it’s on the ecological front that the European project can and should be reignited. The movement initiated by Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg has shown how strongly young Europeans feel about climate change: in northern Europe especially, where people are thought to be the most hostile to any European solidarity. On this front at least, it’s a sign that we’ll be able to join forces and accelerate energy transition on the continent. This effort will have to be redistributive, since it will involve prioritising investment in southern Europe, where one of the main raw materials for such transition — sunlight — is found.

For Europe, this is not just about the long-term survival of humanity, but also, here and now, about the survival of the social model. Europe has been industrialised longer than any other continent — it has therefore exhausted more of its own raw materials and fossil fuels than any other continent. If we’re not capable of moving beyond these energy sources in the near future, we won’t be able to maintain our quality of life, since we’ll have to keep transferring more and more wealth to partners as disreputable as Vladimir Putin in Russia or Mohammed Bin Salman in Saudi Arabia. When the price of raw materials started dropping steadily after the crisis in 2008, the issue was all but forgotten. When prices started to rise again last year, everything was suddenly brought into stark relief — and it was this, after all, that ignited the yellow vest movement in France.

In short, the opportunities to radically transform Europe are much greater than people in France seem to believe. However, one essential prerequisite for seizing those opportunities is that the French stop ignoring them, and finally, committedly, take proposals to the table for (re)constructing a more united, more ecologically friendly and more democratic Europe. One difficulty is that Emmanuel Macron seems too discredited in France to be in a position to play an active role.

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