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The Changing Geopolitics of European Emotion

PARIS – A new triangle of geopolitical emotion has emerged in Europe: Great Britain has ceased feeling superior to France, and France has stopped feeling inferior to Germany. The question is whether this sentimental transformation will ultimately reorder the balance of power in Europe, and possibly the world.

Developments currently underway in Britain and France will prove decisive. It remains to be seen how the British repair the damage they are inflicting upon themselves through the Brexit quagmire. And it is still unclear if the French can harness the strong and positive energy of their new president, Emmanuel Macron, to implement badly needed reforms.

But even as those uncertainties play out, both countries are engaging in a kind of zero-sum transfer of emotions that is impossible to ignore. In the past, traveling to London from Paris, one could easily sense the difference between the two cities. London was bursting with dynamism, and proud to assert itself as the world capital of multiculturalism. Paris, although undeniably more beautiful, was in danger of becoming a new Rome, a prisoner of its past glory, at best a place to visit, but not a place to be.

Today, confidence has been sucked out of Britain by social and political upheaval, terrorism, and uncertainty about the country’s future. According to some opinion polls, while those who voted for Brexit stand by their decision, anti-European Union sentiment has waned, and the will to leave the EU has abated. Voters seem to be wrestling with how their departure will make the United Kingdom safer or address the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable.

In France, by contrast, one feels a new and positive energy. Hope for a better future has returned, reflected in the French public’s overwhelming support for Paris’s bid to host the 2024 Summer Olympics. Hosting the games, a global symbol of positive expectations, lifted the UK’s spirits 12 years ago, in July 2005, when London was awarded the 2012 Summer Olympics. (The celebration was cut short, however, when terrorists attacked the London transport system the following day).

Of course, French optimism does not mean that those defeated at the ballot box will not take to the streets, especially to oppose the implementation of reforms to French labor laws. But the opposition is now a minority in a country where the mood is lighter, even cheerful. That is true even if one takes into consideration the record-low voter turnout in the recent legislative elections.

The current mood reminds me of the atmosphere that briefly prevailed in France in July 1998, after “Les Tricolores” triumphed over Brazil in the final of the soccer World Cup. But this time, the feeling of elation may run deeper and last longer. The economic environment in Europe is more favorable, and the balance of power among French trade unions is shifting in favor of the reform-minded Confédération française démocratique du travail, and away from the more ideological Confédération générale du travail.

A combination of leadership talent and continuing luck means that, for the first time in decades in France, a prudent optimism may be justified. To paraphrase the Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci, one could speak of a justified “optimism of the intellect” in France.

As a result of Macron’s election, and British Prime Minister Theresa May’s failed bet that the snap general election she called earlier this month would enable her to negotiate Brexit from a position of strength, France is now influencing the direction of Europe far more than Britain is. The only country of the EU’s “Big Three” that has remained stable is Germany, in anticipation of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s reelection in September.

Italy would love to replace the UK in Europe’s power trio. But Italy must get its own act together first. Former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who is trying to push his way back to the top, is not an Italian Macron. Whatever talent and energy Renzi may have, he lacks Macron’s gravitas and understanding of the electorate.

Meanwhile, a new and better balance between Germany and France implies significant progress for European stabilization. Europe’s problem, contrary to what many critics have claimed, has not been “too much Germany.” It has been “too little France.” A “French moment” can therefore mean a “European moment,” if it means reconstituting an effective Franco-German alliance.

Americans, too, must understand the shifts that are taking place in Europe. A few days ago, at an international conference in Venice, a conservative Republican urged Europeans to “stop criticizing the Trump administration the way you do.” Otherwise, he warned, “The only result is that we will become much worse. And do you really want to be left alone with a very strong Germany?”

Disregarding the implied threat, the idea that the alternative to America is to be “left alone” with a “very strong Germany” is amusing. Germany, after all, has never wanted to be alone atop the EU; and now, with Macron’s makeover of French politics, it will not need to be.

Emotions may not be sufficient to explain all political realities. But the shift in national mood in Britain and France is undeniable, and it will play an increasingly important role in defining the politics of Europe.