Can France become a superpower again?


Ronja Kempin

Ronja Kempin, born in 1974, heads the EU External Relations research group at the Science and Politics Foundation in Berlin. In 2007 she did her doctorate on France's security policy. Her main research interests include the "Common Security and Defense Policy" of the EU, the security and defense policy of France and the cooperation between Germany, France and Great Britain in matters of security and defense policy.

France has the will to pursue world politics. Although the country's necessary resources are dwindling, its claim to influence international events remains. France relies on an ambitious diplomatic service, a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council and the possession of nuclear weapons.

The aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, the flagship of the French fleet, off the Libyan coast. (& copy AP)

France is different from Germany in many ways. This finding also applies to foreign and security policy. While the political leaders in Germany seek close collaboration with the United States of America on foreign and security policy issues, coordinate their actions internationally and agree with public opinion that the use of the military is the last resort in politics, France rejects proposed solutions the USA quasi reflexively and likes to dash on the international stage and often with his own suggestions and ideas. The country also regularly uses its armed forces as a means of politics.

Even more: France claims the right to act in the name of humanity. The country has the second largest diplomatic service after the USA. In order to be able to deploy its armed forces quickly around the world, Paris maintains nine military bases in third countries such as Djibouti, Senegal and the United Arab Emirates. Since 1960, the country has spent 20 percent of its defense spending annually on maintaining the French nuclear force. France still has 300 nuclear warheads. After all, Paris uses its overseas territories and the Francophonie language and cultural network, which consists of 57 countries, to give its voice meaning on all five continents.

Observers sometimes shake their heads in amazement at the country's claim to want to influence events in world politics. France's share of the world population is just under 1 percent. They smile at a state that seems to be indulging in its imperial power and is finding it difficult to recognize its own loss of importance in the globalized world of the 21st century. However, it does not go far enough to reduce France to the status of a unrealistic middle world power. Anyone who wants to understand French ambitions on the world stage has to grapple with the country's foreign policy identity. This comprises three components: a close connection between state and nation, the "mission civilisatrice" and the special understanding of one's own greatness.

Close connection between state and nation

The determining element of France's foreign and security policy is the close relationship between state and nation. While in the Federal Republic of Germany the concept of the state people prevails, which is subject to state-based sovereignty, France has been an ideal type of state nation since the revolution of 1789. With its demand for political self-determination, the Third Estate introduced the principle of individual commitment to the nation. It replaced the nation held together by state coercion by the republican conception of a nation of free citizens and thus decisively changed the relationship of dependency between state and nation: Was the nation subordinate to the state before the revolution because its members, as in Germany, were in the sense of a "state people." "were subject to state-based sovereignty, the nation now became the source of state legitimacy. It alone can legitimize state power and rule.

The nation, however, is a fragile and unstable construction because it is based on the voluntary and conscious confession of its citizens. Its fragility, in turn, makes the nation dependent on the protection of the state. Only the French state is in a position to protect the French nation internally from division and externally from heteronomy. The symbiotic relationship that has existed between state and nation since the French Revolution can thus be reduced to a simple equation: the nation legitimizes the state, the state protects the nation. Slight changes in the symbiotic relationship between state and nation in France would have serious consequences for the cohesion of the political community and for the legitimacy of the state. The protection of the state must therefore inevitably be absolute. If this logic is transferred to the country's foreign and security policy, it follows that France must have an effective defense policy and its foreign and security policy must not be restricted by alliances or by higher-level bodies. Only within the framework of an independent and powerful foreign and security policy does the state have the opportunity to protect the nation against external attacks and to guarantee the cohesion of France.

"Mission Civilisatrice"

In addition to striving for independence, France's foreign and security policy is based on the so-called "Mission Civilisatrice". This mission is a legacy of the French Revolution of 1789. The revolt of the Third Estate against monarchy and oppression, which came to a symbolic end with the storming of the Bastille and the beheading of the French king, culminated for the first time in history in a universal declaration of the people. and civil rights as well as in democratic and republican principles. The revolutionaries defended these principles when they took to the field in 1792 against Prussia and Austria, who wanted to restore the old relations of rule in France. Their battle cry was: "Guerre aux châteaux! Paix aux chaumières!" - "Peace to the huts, war to palaces!" From this commitment to the freedom and equality of mankind, the political leaders in France derived the right of their country to intervene in crises and conflicts around the world in which human rights are overridden. In addition, they declared their country capable of acting for the benefit of humanity.

Greatness of France

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius in the United Nations Security Council. (& copy AP)
The founder of the Fifth Republic, General Charles de Gaulle, finally added another element to the independent foreign and security policy and the "mission civilisatrice": that of the greatness of France. This element comes from the age of Emperor Napoleon I, who conquered large parts of Europe and Africa at the beginning of the 19th century. Under Napoleon I, this element arose from the sheer size of the Napoleonic Empire, the military superiority of its troops and the colonization of large parts of West and Central Africa. From 1958 onwards, General de Gaulle combined this attitude with France's revolutionary message of democracy and human rights. The permanent seat of the country in the Security Council of the United Nations, which France received after the end of the Second World War, as well as the colonial legacy - France had colonized twenty states in North and West Africa when the Fifth Republic was founded in 1958 and saw itself accordingly as the mouthpiece of Africa - In de Gaulle's eyes, gave the country the right to independent international politics.

In addition, de Gaulle inscribed the anti-American reflexes that had hitherto predominantly been on the left of the political spectrum in the ideas of the conservative political forces in France. The missionary duty to stand up for peace and democracy has put France in competition with the USA since the revolution of 1789. The United States of America also derives from its constitution of 1776 the right to act for the good of mankind. The problem between France and the US, however, is that each side has difficulty recognizing the other side's position. But anti-Americanism in France does not only contain a foreign policy component that denies the US having the good of the world in mind. Rather, it also has a cultural, but above all an ideological component.

French anti-Americanism came to a head in the 1950s and 1960s when public opinion was heavily influenced by the country's leading intellectuals, who opposed not only American liberalism and its concomitant capitalism, but all forms of American influence Europe. Especially on the left side of the political spectrum of France, the foreign and security policy of the USA has since then been subjected to the general accusation of striving for global hegemony as has its economic and cultural policy. On the conservative side, when de Gaulle took office on June 1, 1958, a group entered the political stage that also looked bitterly across the Atlantic: From their point of view, in political exile in London they could not counteract the occupation of France by the National Socialists because Washington refrained from recognizing it as the legitimate provisional government of France until the end of 1944. To this day, a certain anti-Americanism guides France's international action. A certain easing of tension in Franco-American relations was achieved through the return of France to the integrated military structures of NATO. Nicolas Sarkozy ended his country's special position in the alliance in April 2009. General de Gaulle ordered France's withdrawal from NATO's military structures in 1966.

France's international ambitions

France is currently deep in the economic and financial crisis. The country is heavily indebted and its industry is hardly competitive. However, the economic and socio-political difficulties did not prevent the political leaders in Paris from vocalizing France's leadership role in international politics. The interplay of three elements of identity - the close relationship between state and nation, the mission civilisatrice and the historical size of the country - means that France pursues a proactive and independent foreign and security policy. Our neighbor sees himself as a champion for freedom and human rights and is convinced that he can positively influence world events. In doing so, the country's governments confidently rely on the country's status as a permanent member of the Security Council, as a recognized nuclear power and as the mouthpiece of Africa [Africa policy]. But even without these status symbols, France's international ambition would probably remain unchanged.


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