General Charles de Gaulle would be proud. For the future of Europe will be shaped in this new year not in Germany, not in Italy, not in troublesome Russia, not in Brexiting Britain, but in France. Others will play a role, could even produce shocks. But France will have the most decisive influence.

De Gaulle wasn’t really a collaborative believer in European solidarity. After all, he notoriously held the young European Community to ransom in the mid-1960s by boycotting meetings in order to foster his own vision of an intergovernmental, rather than supranational, Europe. He was what Donald Trump might call a “France Firster”. But still, he wanted Europe to make France more powerful in the world, which is about to happen, again.

One reason is well known: the possibility, shocking even that it can be called a possibility, that the Front National’s Marine Le Pen could be elected president in May. Who hasn’t heard the gloomy, speculative logic? That after Brexit and Trump, the next blow to rational predictions and conventional wisdom, the next victory of populism, must be President Le Pen?

If that were to happen, the European Union would be for the scrapheap. Unlike Trump, Le Pen has been in politics for 20 years already and her policy positions have a consistency that means they have to be taken seriously: she would want France to rebuild trade barriers, leave the euro and restrict immigration tightly, none of it compatible with the EU as we know it. And she really means it.

The result is that there is no point in any EU country – Britain negotiating Brexit, Italy contemplating a general election – taking serious action until after the second round of France’s presidential poll has taken place on May 7th. The result is simply too important for all of us. But it is important also for another reason, beyond fear of a President Le Pen.

This other reason why France will be influential is a much more positive one. It is that in its 60 years of existence, the European Union has never made progress, never been able to act credibly and decisively, except when the governments of France and Germany have thought together, planned together and worked together. During the five-year term of President Francois Hollande, this Franco-German motor has ground to a halt. Neither side trusts the other, and the Germans think President Hollande is weak and incapable.

Without that Franco-German motor, management of Europe’s multiple crises has been disastrously slow, ineffective and divisive. Yet the interests of France and Germany are shared: the Berlin killings on December 19th, just over a year since the Bataclan massacre and five months on from an identical truck attack in Nice, showed that the two countries face the same terrorist threat; having conceived the euro together when Presidents Kohl and Mitterrand were in full co-operation, they share a deep interest in making the currency system work; and with America potentially turning hostile to Europe under President Trump, they need each other more than ever in geopolitics.

If the much likelier outcome of France’s presidential election in May occurs, namely a victory for the centre-right candidate Francois Fillon, the stage would be set for a new era of Franco-German collaboration. Fillon, who is an economic liberaliser but a social conservative, is far more compatible with Chancellor Angela Merkel and especially with her Christian Democrat and Christian Social Union party supporters, than has been President Hollande. He would even stand a chance of convincing Merkel and the German parliament to relax the tight fiscal constraints that have been holding euro-zone economies back.

But will the likely outcome actually transpire, after a 2016 during which the supposedly likely outcomes in Britain and America have both failed to occur? The key dangers, in France as in the Netherlands, which has a general election in March, and in Italy, whenever its election takes place, arise from the combination of high unemployment, stagnant household incomes and fear of immigration.

Hillary Clinton’s problem was that she represented too closely the American establishment that had brought the 2008 financial crash and then had failed to oversee an equitable recovery from it. Brexit is a very different case, given Britain’s long history of semi-detachment from Europe, but it still can be explained by alienation from the powers-that-be, which crucially included a Europe that, thanks to the loss of the Franco-German motor, now looked like a problem rather than any sort of a solution.

To win the argument during 2017, political parties and intellectuals that favour open, liberal societies and European collaboration will have to show that they offer more hope for the future of citizens of all ages than do the advocates of closure and of rejecting Europe, such as Le Pen and the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders.

That means that they will need to convince voters that they can make Europe work again, make it part of the solution for national ailments rather than a problem in itself. Above all, however, they will need to convince voters that they can restore national economic dynamism, removing obstacles to growth and to the creation of jobs.

Francois Fillon is a good person to lead this argument, since he is capable of appealing both to young voters who want jobs and opportunities and to older voters worried about traditional French values. Both the other two mainstream candidates, Manuel Valls of the left and Emmanuel Macron as an independent, also have the chance to inspire the young, though as former members of President Hollande’s administration they are also tainted by recent failure.

The stakes, for Europe and for the world, could not be higher.

By Bill Emmott

This article was originally published in Italian by La Stampa on January 9th 2017


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