It was as predictable, subtle and French as a first tasting of a Chassagne Montrachet Premier Cru – full of hidden complexity and fascinating ‘notes’. French President Hollande’s condemnation of Edward Snowden-alleged American spying in Europe was dramatically shrill. “We cannot accept”, the President thundered, “…this kind of behaviour between allies and partners”, before going onto suggest that France might now scupper talks on the proposed EU-US Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). One could be forgiven for taking French ‘hauteur’ at face value were it not for the fact that my well-informed sources tell me that DGSE, the French external intelligence service, runs one of the most effective foreign intelligence operations in North America. So, why is France angry?
Many in the French elite still believe that more Atlantic means less Europe and that the next five years or so will be critical for the European Project. It is a zero sum game view of West-West relations that could potentially cripple the TTIP and which is already doing damage to NATO.
The first evidence that France was seeking to block the TTIP came on the eve of the recent UK-hosted G8 Summit when Paris raised the thorny issue of French ‘l’exception culturelle’. Paris demanded, in that ‘take it or leave it’ way that France’s partners find so endearing, that French cinema and other artistic endeavors be exempted from any transatlantic free trade agreement. British Prime Minister David ‘Short-Term’ Cameron, desperate for a diplomatic success, failed to see (or chose not to see) that this was the very French end of a very French wedge.
Chancellor Merkel is also upset by alleged US spying. This is partly because the state abuse of information is a sensitive issue given Germany’s past and she is in the midst of an election campaign. However, German ‘irritation’ will soon pass. First because most US spying on and in Germany takes place in partnership with German intelligence. Second, because Chancellor Merkel believes the TTIP could help the Eurozone economies to become more competitive by creating a single market big enough and safe enough for export-driven growth. Third, a transatlantic single market would potentially be big enough to make it in Britain’s economic interest to stay in the EU. Fourth, the TTIP would provide a free market alibi for further German-led European integration.
The Paris elite buy none of that. Anti-Americanism still runs deep along the banks of the Seine. On the statist Left French political leaders have long cut their teeth on an abiding loathing of what they see as the rampant, inhumane and unfettered capitalism of the American model. On the Gaullist Right American power in Europe has long been seen as an affront to French honor and a barrier to French ambitions to craft Europe around France.
This anti-American reflex comes to the fore at moments of political and economic stress such as today, often in combination with a none-too-subtle ‘faux grandeur’. President Hollande’s recent assertion that France would not be dictated to by the European Commission was at the very best political irony and at worst hubris. Paris seemed to be saying to the Commission – by all means tell all other 27 EU members what to do…but not France.
In fact it is the Germans who most concern Paris. France is only publicly going along with the TTIP because that is what Angela wants. And yet implicit in the Merkel Plan is a free-market world view much closer to that of the dreaded and perfidious ‘anglosaxons’ than the statist traditions upon which France is built.
Sadly, the Paris elite simply cannot face today’s revealed truth; France’s ‘social model’ view of Europe is dead. ‘Europe’ will only have a long-term future if the EU helps Europeans to earn their way in the world. The EU will fail if it remains as it is today, a failing, ageing coffer dam creaking under the growing weight of a flood of change. This is precisely what many on the French Left want the EU to be – 1950s analogue political engineering in a digital age. The creation of the TTIP would be the first step on the road to a Europe competitive in a hyper-competitive world.
The bottom-line is this; if France continues to seek excuses to block TTIP talks Paris is aligning itself with the forces of the past rather than the forces of the future. The irony is that it is forces from America’s past that will probably in the end kill off the TTIP. An Unholy Alliance is forming between American and French farmers all of whom demand protectionism.
There is a final irony. France and the US tried to agree a ‘no-spy’ deal similar to that which exists between the US and UK but they could not agree what constitutes spying. That means the Americans could at any time reveal the extent of French spying on them.
This whole episode reveals the Snowden story for what it is; a tragi-comic farce. Jacques Tati meets Groucho Marx – now that would be fun!
Julian Lindley-French is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Advisory Group. This essay first appeared on his personal blog, Lindley-French’s Blog Blast.