We left Paris somewhat puzzled. Unlike in the previous countries there was no clear message to be drawn from our conversations, no distinct topic in our discussions. We had talked about limits of Europe in the Netherlands, the identity question in Belgium and euro-scepticism in the UK. But there is no such thing for France. Similar to Europe as a whole France doesn’t seem to have decided where to head.
On the one hand France is at the heart of Europe. The father of European integration, Jean Monnet, is French, as is Robert Schumann, Jacques Delors and one part of the currently leading tandem Merkozy. France has benefited from the common market and the Euro. Most importantly, France has succeeded in its primary goal of preserving peace with Germany. So there is every reason to be a euro-enthusiast in France. What’s wrong then? For one, it is not true that France has always been in favour of the whole European construction, says Yves Bertoncini, General Secretary of the think tank Notre Europe. He argues that the Treaty of Rome was a Benelux innovation, largely focused on economic integration rather than geopolitical strategy, something that the French have always been sceptical about. Today many are disappointed about their nations comparative economic decline. France is no longer an engine of the European construction, says Bertoncini. And Antoine, a 24 year-old who lives and works in Paris, says: The union works not very well in an economic way.
Similarly, when you take a look at the upcoming elections, European convictions seem a little nebulous. With Francois Hollande promising to renegotiate the EU fiscal compact, one might wonder if European politics will, for the very first time, become decisive for a national election. Even more so since Nicholas Sarkozy is regarded as the only candidate who is strong enough to compete in the European contest. So have French politics been europeanised? By no means. The crucial topics remain domestic, especially after the recent series of murders has provoked a heavy debate on national security, says Eleonore, a half Dutch half French student. Bertoncini from Notre Europe adds: Europe is not going to be decisive for the election after all.
What does the young generation think? Same picture. Although many seem to be comitted Europeans who (to our surprise) are very open to speaking English and strongly believe in the international importance of the political project, something slows down their passion. They seem especially worried about their economic strength being harmed by poorer member countries. The 25 year old shop assistent Julie says: I need my money for myself, I guess there are other ways to save Greece. A few minutes later we speak to Jerôme who complains about France’s shrinking role in Europe. He fears low payed workers from abroad taking over French jobs. Pierre Rousselin, chief editor of foreign politics at Le Figaro, puts it nice and sharp: French expectations and demands will always be confronted with the fact that Slovaks, Lithuanians or whoever will put obstacles in our way. Eventually, Europe is not a tool for France.
So France remains a little ambiguous as to what role it is going to play in Europe. That said, however, Euroskop is by no means disappointed about its findings in Paris. At the end of the day, it’s a feature of every working democracy that people’s opinions vary and the whole picture is not as easily graspable as in a regime that canalises a single view on things.