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The Gallic Heart of Europe

MADRID ‒ Europe needs a France that is proud, prosperous, and able to overcome its gloomy suspicions. We need the great country that was and will be – the France that inspired the entire world with its revolution, culture, and values. Alain Peyrefitte, the scholar, politician, and confidant of Charles de Gaulle, said that “without Europe, France will be nothing”; but, without France, Europe, too, would be nothing.

In this year of anniversaries, it is worth reflecting on France’s future. On July 14, France’s national holiday, which this year marked the 225th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, Algerian soldiers paraded down the Champs-Élysées for the first time since Algeria’s war for independence a half-century ago, a moving symbol of historic transcendence. It has also been one hundred years since the outbreak of the First World War, and 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall quickly led to German reunification.

Europe has changed much since then. Twenty-five years ago, France and the Federal Republic of Germany had similar populations of about 60 million inhabitants (like Italy and the United Kingdom). German reunification added more than 16 million new citizens from the former East Germany, making the enlarged Federal Republic the most populous country in the European Union by far.

This upset the balance of the Franco-German axis around which the EU as a whole had long turned. To avoid negative political consequences, Germany agreed to be underrepresented in weighted voting on EU matters – an imbalance in its own right that was not substantially corrected until the Lisbon Treaty entered into effect in 2009.

Over time, and in a process accentuated by the recent economic crisis, size and economic might meant that Germany began to set the tempo of European affairs. Today, Germany has clearly become the point of reference for shaping policy on the most important issues facing the EU.

But the logic of how Europe was constructed requires that France complement Germany – and now that other major EU countries, including Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, and Poland, do so as well. Indeed, today’s Europe can no longer be the two-country affair – if it ever was that ‒ of 30 years ago.

But, for many of the EU member states, France remains a model. So when France suffers, Europe suffers. Healing Europe and healing France are two parts of the same equation, with the same unknowns in play.

Because of its very relevance, historical heft, and cultural baggage, France mistrusts the changes taking place around it – as though the weight of its nationhood were keeping it from taking flight and narrowing its horizons. But no country today can remain isolated from globalization, tame it, or lead it alone. So France must look again to Europe, which in turn needs both France and Germany if it is to be balanced and successful.

France is still burdened by the consequences of its “no” vote in 2005 on the proposed European Constitution – clearly not its finest hour. Ten years on, France should not be afraid of exchanging some of its sovereignty for political union in Europe. On the contrary, France should be one of the leaders of that effort, adding its voice and centrality as a country halfway between Europe’s north and south and acting as a model for many other countries on social issues.

Just as Germany took a step forward by giving up its Deutshce Mark in favor of the euro, France must evolve beyond the classical framework of the nation-state. As Germany’s economic preponderance translates into greater political power, it becomes increasingly important to supplement this with France’s unique point of view. This is particularly true in view of today’s unstoppable progress toward closer economic integration, which will lead, happily or haphazardly, to greater political integration.

France’s solid economic foundation furnishes it with the means to face up to the reforms that it urgently needs. Its per capita income is more than €30,000 ($40,000) per year, and it has a strong welfare state and an educated society. Yet its GDP growth is stagnant.

Europe and the world cannot afford to allow dynamic France to succumb to static France, the France that resists all change. For example, France’s cooperation on the construction of a common European market for energy is crucial for Spain; indeed, this relationship could be enormously beneficial both for France and all of Europe.

France should consider Europe its own. French republican values find their expression in the EU. Liberty, equality, and fraternity are enemies of the nationalist, extremist, and europhobic visions benighting Europe today. These dark visions must be met with France’s commitment to integration, the rule of law, and secularism.

France has taken on important international commitments recently that all must appreciate, with the hope that France’s political, economic, and social reawakening continues. There should be no U-turn in the course toward modernization, especially now, when political forces that exploit fear and hatred are on the rise, betraying republican values. This is the moment for France, along with the rest of Europe, to overcome its pessimism, doubt, and mistrust.