One of the striking images of recent current affairs is the leaders of France, Germany and Italy in a train compartment on their way to Kiev. Trains have played an important part in the history of European wars. For instance, armistices for the first and second world wars were signed in carriages and the professionalisation of the German army officer class in the lead up to the first world war was driven by the need to rationalise complicated train timetables (it’s a long story).
Emmanuel Macron’s trip to Kiev offered him a much-needed chance to clarify his stance on the war, though his return to Paris was less happy as he subsequently lost his absolute majority in parliament. My sense is that the rise of the far left and right in France is less damaging in the near term for Macron – he will likely gain support from the right ‘Les Republicans’, to the long-term benefit of Edouard Philippe perhaps. What is more interesting in my view, is the way the war in Ukraine, democracy generally and specifically in France, are all linked.
As a general point, democracy is in difficulty. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, only 13% of the world’s countries are full democracies. What is more worrying is the erosion of democracy in core democratic countries – such as the lack of convincing opposition to Boris Johnson’s bulldozing of British institutions and the rule of law, and the carefree way in which many Americans greeted the findings of the January 6th inquiry.
French democracy is in a much better place than its two Atlantic neighbours –together with Ireland all four countries are important in that they make up the crucible of modern liberal democracy – but it is still troubled. In this context, France is an interesting case study for several reasons.
The first is that politically, largely thanks to the policy energy of Macron, it is the most important country in Europe. On the train ride to Ukraine Mario Draghi referred to Macron as the ‘president of Europe’. So, where France goes, Europe goes too.
Second, the French political system is fast evolving – the two dominant parties of the last forty years have been smashed by Macron’s ‘revolution from within the system’ and now he is surrounded on either side by two system outsiders (they have been around for so long they are really insiders), who champion the discontented and who to different degrees, are friends of Russia. As such, the French system has moved from left to right, to inside v outsider, or more aptly ‘upstairs v downstairs’, though Le Pen and Melanchon are also possibly both richer than Macron, the ‘president of the rich’!
France is also interesting in that while the outsized role of the state has managed to soften the blows of successive crises – eurozone, COVID and now inflation – it has also created a broad view that the state is the solution to all ills. At this juncture, this cannot continue because with government spending at or above 55% of GDP, France has no fiscal space left.
With regard to French democracy, this may produce some forced, interesting innovations – such as a greater consideration of citizen assemblies and more autonomy for regions. Expect to hear more about these and other related ‘clever’ ideas from me on democracy, though my great worry is that they fall on deaf ears, and that something disturbing needs to happen in order that people realise the challenge ahead.
So, consider this. What is Russian wins the war in Ukraine. In this respect, winning the war does not require Russia takes Kiev, but rather it takes and obliterates the southern and eastern perimeter of Ukraine, sues for peace and then retreats on the basis that sanctions are lifted. Other events follow, Navalny mysteriously dies, Russia provides grain to friendly countries and the Russian military and business classes are purged of anyone who is not ‘hard line’.
Pessimistically some countries, from the UAE, Turkey, India and Germany (Scholz’ foreign policy advisor betrayed as much) seek to build relations with Russia, which remains a pivotal commodity power. The example, to other countries (recall 54% of the world’s population live in hybrid democracies or authoritarian regimes), is that the West and its value system is weakened, ‘strong manism’ is emboldened and the idea of ‘managed democracy’ becomes the prevalent form of government across the world – leading to, amongst other things, brain drains, capital flight and diminished productivity. Hong Kong is a great example.
That is a depressing scenario but it underlines the point that whilst the two large English speaking democracies undergo their own internal political turmoil and institutional decay (Roe v. Wade the latest example), that Europe is the focus of an existential struggle around democratic values. In this struggle, Ukraine, Serbia, Moldova, Hungary, Georgia and Belarus are all frontier states – and will all have to choose sides, and arguably should be made to choose sides.
I am not sure European leaders fully grasp this. When they do there is a significant project ahead – more carefully listening to and incorporating the views of the Baltic states and even Poland (France needs to listen hard), while treating increasingly non-democracies like Hungary even more harshly. Countries like France need to lead by example, changing political funding laws and media ownership. At a European level, there is a need to listen to people and build their needs into the practical workings of European liberal democracy, rather than framing theoretical posturing on enlightenment.
Have a great week ahead,