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Mitterrand’s Success Positions France for a Central Role in Europe

<i> Dominique Moisi is an associate director of the French Institute for International Relations and the editor of Politique Etrangere. </i>

As France enters the second half of what probably will be described by historians as the Mitterrand era, the world beyond must be looking on with a mixture of relief and perplexity.

The reelection of Francois Mitterrand comes as a relief to those who feared for the future of a France under the pugnacious Jacques Chirac--and for the future under a Chirac government owing much to the extreme right wing’s Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Yet the future under Mitterrand remains a perplexing question for Frenchmen and all Europeans alike.

Europe needs an open, stable, strong and imaginative France, for France is the only truly political animal in Western Europe that can play a decisive role in the construction of a politically unified Europe. West Germany, because of its past and as a result of its divided present, remains essentially an economic power; Great Britain is torn between Atlanticist and European faithfulness; Italy is an economic miracle embedded in a political quagmire. Only France can play a pioneering political and security role (provided it surmounts its economic weakness).

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Under Mitterrand’s first presidency, even with Chiracas prime minister (a “cohabitation” of socialists and neoGaullists), a new consensus has formed in France around the values of a focus on Europe. This consensus is somewhat ambiguous and far from complete. One-third of the French, those who voted for either the extreme right or the extreme left, feel excluded from the process of modernization and openness to Europe; yet, while Europe is a source of their anxiety, it is also the only answer to their fear.

How will Mitterrand’s France face the European challenge? Will France abandon itself to the dubious charm of intense but paralyzing domestic and ideological debates? Or will France perform a positive role for Europe and itself, combining openness and new stability under Mitterrand 2? What will it be--a suicidal exceptionalism or a welcome ordinariness, the certainty of defeat in an anachronistic attempt to preserve a unique world role that transcends the nation’s means, or a positive symbiosis within the European framework?

In the coming years French decision-makers will have to face inevitable dilemmas and confront unpleasant choices if French foreign policy is to escape the chasm between discourse and reality. In short, France will have to choose between a true European role and an increasingly unsustainable global commitment.

With Mitterrand continuing at the helm of government, this is an appropriate time for France to make a fresh and critical appraisal of its role. A changing international environment, a combination of East-West rapprochement on arms control, of Middle Eastern terrorist activities, of pacifist and independence-minded opposition to a French presence in the South Pacific--all these have recently exposed France’s inherent vulnerabilities. They have underscored the political and diplomatic costs of a highly visible foreign policy at a time of growing discrepancy between means and aims, rhetoric and reality, ambition and solvency.

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France, keen on preserving that miraculous achievement, an apparent national consensus on foreign policy,has been meeting recent changes and challenges with an ambiguity born of the fear that adaptation would cause divisiveness and mediocrity.

Yet adaptation is necessary, immediately in two areas: heightened concentration on Europe, and dialogue and conciliation for New Caledonia. In the European effort, France will have to diversify its defense presence and increase its conventional effort--and accept that, even for France, more security means less independence. Failure to do this would mark Europe’s decline, since no other party will have France’s unique role.

The Pompidou and Giscard d’Estaing presidencies may appear in the eyes of historians as a brief interlude between the Gaullist and Mitterrand eras. In his style, his historic and literary approach to politics, in his durability, too, Mitterrand has proved to be the most Gaullist of Charles de Gaulle’s successors. Only a man of his generation, who lived through World War II as an adult, can have the necessary full openness to the European ideal, beyond the often technocratic imperatives of younger politicians. It is now Mitterrand’s responsibility, by performing the necessary shift of French policy regarding Europe and New Caledonia, to prove that he also embodies De Gaulle’s realism.


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