Britain's favourite Frenchman, Michel Barnier, is in the Calais region today where he will address a conference about his part in Brexit and perhaps give a further indication as to his presidential aspirations. The EU's chief Brexit negotiator was described in yesterday's Le Figaro as the man who can 'unite the right' and in doing so present a credible alternative to Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen in 2022.
Barnier presides over a political initiative called Patriotes et européens and he explained its concept to Le Figaro: 'Patriot and European, this means that I believe in the force of the nations, the respect of national identities and France as a country of influence at the head of the European nations.'
What Barnier and a great many of the political class in France fail to understand is the shift in attitude towards the EU in the last year. There is the manner in which Covid has exposed the incompetency and disunity at the heart of the EU, and undoubtedly Brexit has shown the eurosceptic French that it is possible to escape the tyranny of the EU. Protracted, as 17.4 million Britons will testify, but possible with enough determination.
But there's another reason why the French have fallen out of love with the EU, and that's Germany. Last November a German journalist for Die Zeit caused something of a stir in France when she ridiculed the country's handling of coronavirus (this was before Germany's own confused response to a second wave), dubbing France 'Absurdistan'.
Increasingly, however, the French people are realising that the real absurdity is believing Germany still values France and is committed to the EU project. The French people might be coming to this realisation, but the political class retains an ardent faith in the Franco-German relationship, rather like those in Westminster who quaintly believe Britain enjoys a 'special relationship' with the USA.
The current affairs magazine, Marianne, recently devoted an issue to this delusion entitled 'How Germany has fleeced France', chronicling the ways — agriculturally, militarily and industrially — that Germany has exploited France in recent decades. In 1980 France's GDP per capita was 5 per cent inferior to Germany's; today it is 13 per cent.
In a radio interview, editor Natacha Polony said that she wasn't surprised by the angry reaction her magazine received: 'We have an elite who are so in thrall to our German neighbours that the moment anyone legitimately defends our national interests, the elite cry "Germanophobia".'
Marianne was just the latest publication to question what exactly France gains from its 'partnership' with Germany. Last year, when France dispatched a naval force to the Mediterranean to assist Greece in their clash with Turkey, it was noted that Germany did not support its European allies. 'In the European team,' said Le Figaro at the time, 'Germany is at once the captain and a player who scores against its own side when it's in its interest.'
Examples abound: the 2015 migrant crisis, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and Germany's refusal in 2012 to agree to a merger between Dutch aerospace conglomerate EADS NV and Britain's BAE Systems to create the world's biggest aerospace and defence group. France was enthusiastic but Germany pulled the plug because it feared that it would be bad for German industry.
Last month the conservative magazine, Valeurs Actuelles, described Germany as the 'tyrant of the EU', a reaction sparked by Germany's decision to implement border checks in eastern France after a spike in Covid cases. It listed examples of how Angela Merkel has mastered the art of acting in her country's own interest, particularly when it comes to China. The magazine mocked Emmanuel Macron for his naivety in believing France means anything to Germany, a country that 'prostitutes its industry to the best customer'.
Macron has always been starry-eyed in the presence of Merkel, never more so than in January 2019 when he signed a treaty in Aachen with the German Chancellor. The official blurb proclaimed that the treaty would deepen co-operation between the two powers in foreign affairs, defence, development and security. But it was attacked by right-wing politicians such as Marine Le Pen and Nicolas Dupont-Aignan. The latter, who allied with Le Pen in the 2017 election, accused the President of having been taken for a ride by Merkel. 'Berlin has been hooked on the US military since 1945 and has never honoured its commitment to spend 2 per cent of its GDP on military spending,' he said. 'France has invested hundreds of billions of euros more than Germany in its armed forces... what will Germany offer in return to France outside bouquets of flowers for 11 November? Nothing.'
Two and a half years later Dupont-Aignan's opinion has gone mainstream — this will pose a problem for Macron ahead of next year's election. Marine Le Pen was trounced by Macron in the 2017 presidential debate but she produced the best line of the evening in declaring: 'France will be led by a woman. Either me or Madame Merkel.'
Macron entered the Elysée believing that he and Merkel would be the power couple of Europe but 'Mutti' always does what's best for Germany. So instead of spending his days bashing Britain over Brexit, Macron should break free from his toxic relationship with Germany. It's harming him and his country.