After the Greek drama: Is France back at the forefront of European leadership?

13 juillet 2015
The Greek drama may be over—for now—but the European leadership crisis is not, following one of the most acrimonious weekends the EU may have seen in its recent history. The French-German relationship, long considered the key driver of the European project but which seemed to have faded away, is now thought to be back. “The one constructive party in the past few weeks has been France,” wrote Martin Sandbu in the Financial Times, adding: “After five years of playing second fiddle—and to Berlin’s tune at that—Paris rediscovered its status as coequal leader of the European project.”

It may not have been France’s intention to challenge Germany, but it now appears that’s what happened. Since the beginning of the crisis, the French government has been supportive of Greece. It did not want to create a precedent of breaking off from the eurozone, which could have led to major difficulties—including in France itself, where anti-European populism has been on the rise.

President François Hollande said on Monday: “It is an historic decision for Greece to remain in the eurozone…Greece is not only part of Europe’s history, it is also part of our lifestyle.” The message to the French people was clear: Don’t worry about losing your French identity, France remains a key player on the continent and in the world. Unlike the Germans who were largely in favor of letting Greece leave the eurozone, the French were more supportive of restructuring Greek debt, with 55 percent in support.

Believing that Grexit was simply not an option, the French government fought to the end to ensure that Greece would remain in the eurozone. The French public remains in favor of the euro, though a substantial minority—33 percent—would like to return to the French franc. Nonetheless, besides the far-right and far-left parties, all political parties have supported Hollande—he will probably benefit politically from his handling of the Greek crisis.

There is also a growing sentiment in France that Germany is becoming again too powerful. This is what some are calling the return of the “German question”—the problem of integrating a powerful Germany into Europe that preoccupied statesmen from the time of Bismarck until the end of the Second World War. Great Britain has very little say in this situation due to its self-imposed exile outside the eurozone (and perhaps outside the EU, when comes the 2017 referendum). While Prime Minister David Cameron’s voice was not to be heard in Europe, France was at the center of the talks and remains vital to many European decisions. As a founding member of the European Community, it needed to play a counterweight role to Germany during the talks with Greece—in many ways, it did.

Article originally published in the Brookings Institute website.
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