Macron in Russia: “Make Gaullism Great Again”

The present day European Union owes its origin to the European Coal and Steel Community formed in 1952 as a means of integrating the primarily western and central European powers in order to create peace through prosperity in the aftermath of the Second World War. This in turn led to the formation of the European Economic Community in 1956 whose initial members Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and (West) Germany, still form the core of the European Union.

From 1945 up until the present day, questions of post-war European integration have broadly been framed along the lines of Atlanticism versus Gaullism. This is to say that arguments have been proffered about whether a post-fascist western/central Europe should act as a kind of off-shoot of the policies and political structures formed in post-1945 Washington or whether Europe should embrace a ‘third way’ which would be able to have good or at least reasonable relations with both the American superpower and the eastern superpowers which in 1952 were the USSR and People’s Republic of China and are today the Russian Federation and People’s Republic of China.

Long serving French President and hero of the French anti-fascist resistance Charles de Gaulle was adamant that Europe should become more integrated on the model of a pan-Europeanism which rejected a close (aka subservient) relationship with the United States and instead would create a new model of European multi-nationalism that embraced Europe’s own history and institutions at the expense of new US-led endeavours like NATO, which de Gaulle’s France famously withdrew from in 1966.

While West Germany benefited more than any European nation from Washington’s aid-scheme The Marshall Plan, France dug in and began resisting both American political influence and cultural influence, all the while still remaining a US ally.

Emmanuel Macron has only been in office for just over a year but already one has seen the advent of three distinct Macrons in that period. When he was first elected, he was seen as the foreign policy novice who was going to “stand up” to Trump, Erdogan and Putin simultaneously. This amateurish version of ‘Gaullism for simpletons’ did not work out and instead Macron soon developed a close personal friendship with Donald Trump after inviting him to the Bastille Day Parade in 2017.

During Macron’s latest visit to the United States which took place only days before Washington’s unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA (aka Iran nuclear deal) saw Macron and Trump sharing more physical affection than either President shared with their respective wives. But the trip was to little avail as Macron’s pleas for the US to remain in the JCPOA fell on totally deaf ears.

Today, Macron is in St. Petersburg where he is speaking with Russian President Putin at the prestigious St. Petersburg Economic Forum while yesterday the two leaders held an incredibly lengthy press conference. During his remarks, Macron appeared to praise Putin’s leadership while being the first major European leader to public acknowledge the indisputably prominent role that Russia once again plays in global affairs, particularly in the Middle East. Macron’s mission was clear enough, if the EU is to have any hope of succeeding in its desire to defy the US threat of sanctions against European companies and continue to uphold a post-US JCPOA, Europe will need the strong support of the other parties to the agreement, Russia and China.

For Europe this boils down to two things:

1. The EU’s markets must open up to Chinese goods in a more meaningful, respectful and sincere way than most EU leaders had previously been willing to offer and in exchange, China will welcome European companies into the world’s largest single-state domestic market.

2. Europe needs to drop hostile sanctions against Russia and cease aligning with forces whose goal is to provoke Russia.

Both of these things are tall orders for Europe and of course the tallest order is avoiding US sanctions which Europe is far more susceptible to than the economic mega-titan that is China or than Russia which has managed to weather the storm of most western sanctions through the combination of enhanced self-sufficiency and the strengthening of new economic partnerships in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Because ultimately, the US will always be a bigger market for European goods than Iran, there is looming scepticism over whether the EU will actually be able to defy its traditional American ally over the JCPOA. But what is clear is that the Trump administration’s totally unsympathetic views towards European needs, wishes and realities have changed the dynamic in Brussels more so than even during the years of EU Commission President Jacques Delors.

For much of the 20th and virtually all of the 21st century until now, the EU pretended that the US saw the bloc as both an ally and as an equal. Even when Germany and France openly defied US President George W. Bush’s call to join his illegal Iraq invasion, in other areas Brussels and Washington remained close, while during the Obama years, Angela Merkel was closer to Barack Obama than his own Vice President.

But now that the mask has slipped and Trump has revealed that Europe holds no unique place in Washington’s “heart”, a new tide of Gaullism is sweeping much of Europe and clearly, a young French President is the man to rhetorically lead such a charge vis-a-vis an all too experienced Germany Chancellor who is hanging on to power more because of the incompetence of her opponents than because of any sustained popularity.

It is difficult to say whether 21st century Gaullism will be more successful than it was the first time around when the ideology died a slow death not long after the physical death of the French leader for whom it is named. But what is clear is that Europe will now at least try to act upon this Gaullism with 21st century characteristics in an attempt to balance the EU’s position between the eastern powers and its American ally while also attempting to carve out a new role for Europe where the Franco-German axis has been rocked by the Trump phenomenon and Brexit,  while many eastern European members of the EU (who were part of the Warsaw Pact during the 20th century) are increasingly sceptical towards both rapprochement with Russia ( namely in Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania)  and the strong centralising tendencies of Brussels (Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and to a degree, also the three Baltic republics).

Because of this, the proponents of Gaullism with 21st century characteristics have their work cut out for them, but what is clear is that a movement in European politics that many had thought was an antiquated aberration is now sharing the stage with Vladimir Putin in the Russian President’s home city. In terms of a clear sign of political ambition, this is in and of itself, an achievement for the French leader.

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