The Elysée Treaty turned 50 this week, a grand occasion for official hypocrisy, reporting ineptitude and a garish mixture of flonflons and umpah. Here is my attempt to make some sense of what is being celebrated.
France always tried to think of itself as a Great Power on the world stage, which is all the more surprising since it spent most of its modern life as clearly the underdog in the (numerous) fights it picked up: with the Habsburgs in the 16th and 17th centuries, with Britain in the 18th century, with everyone in Europe under Napoleon and finally, to tragic consequences, with Germany after 1870, a silly border dispute that caused two world wars and resulted in 60 million deaths or so.
But then, in under twenty years, in spite of all the noise it kept making, it clearly became a dwarf in international politics. There were three stages in that fall:
- first, 1940-45, when its legitimate government, Vichy's Etat français, sank into collaboration with Nazi Germany before being swept away with it. To cover-up, De Gaulle started the official lie that France was part of the victors, with a seat on the UN's Security Council, which prevented France from looking hard at its fabric and has greatly concurred to keep-it reform-free.
- second, Suez in 1956, when the United States told it, as well as Britain and Israel, to pack up their field victory, go play in their room and stop bothering grown-ups. Suez was a defining moment for all three countries, all of them wowing for such a thing to nether happen again to them, but choosing widely different paths towards that goal. Britain and Israel cozied up to the US, hence the "special relationship", while France decided to go it alone and build its own nuclear might.
- and finally when it gave up the last remnant of its colonial Empire, Algeria, in 1962. It was then left as a moderately significant European country, a tad larger than the European average, for sure, but with little real clout left.
Nevertheless, it went on pretending being a world power, thanks to two crutches:
- blackmailing the US, a "bribe me or else" strategy initiated by De Gaulle, which was particularly effective and credible in view of the impressive size of the "enemy within" in France, namely a huge and highly organized French Communist Party, which used to and collect between 20 and 25% of the popular vote and to this day has never been blacklisted by French society as an enemy of democracy.
- making use to its own advantage of Germany's terrible criminal record. In the 1950s, the FRG, slightly more populated than France but economically much better organized, was denied a formal role in international institutions because of its past. It desperately wanted a new, clean reputation, and being friends with its former arch-enemy seemed a no-brainer to that effect. Moreover it refused on principle, for commendable therapeutic purposes, to do anything that could in any way remind of its pre-1945 militarism. It was thus clearly anxious to acquire an ally that could speak for it on the international stage and eventually use force, which it had so thoroughly renounced. It thus went out of its way to please France, claimed to be its equal or even its vassal, paid for every French whim, even the most harmful (like the absurd Common Agricultural Policy, which ate up most of the EU's budget for 35 years in subventions to mainly French farmers and ... did in fact a lot of long term harm to France by keeping its agriculture backward) and allowed France to continue to travelling first class with a second class ticket both militarily and diplomatically.