Can France reclaim intellectual leadership of the EU?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

“We need a firmer hand at the EU’s helm,” argues Sylvie Goulard, president of the European Movement in France, exploring whether France is capable of “reclaiming the intellectual leadership of the EU” in the autumn edition of Europe’s World.

For Goulard, “European integration has always been a collective endeavour that demands a convergence of different national ideas”. Given that the EU consists of 27 heterogenous member states, she argues that quality leadership is essential. 

Nevertheless, the author admits that “no single member state can provide enough leadership to compensate for all the challenges we face”. Instead, she says the EU desperately needs “leaders who are capable of playing a collective game and thinking in European terms”. Today’s heads of state and government are too frequently “narrow-minded”, she laments, “paying lip service to the EU and its aims and ideas, yet refusing to give their support to all the necessary EU policy steps”.

Although at certain times France has played a decisive role in the history of European integration through leaders such as Jean Monnet and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, Goulard recalls that the French political class “has long been divided over Europe”.

On top of this, some of the structural reforms that French President Nicolas Sarkozy has tried to put in place have been “ambiguous”, she argues. Sarkozy claims he wants to put France “back in Europe”, but he has “failed to tackle the problem of France’s €50bn public deficit and the country’s poor performance on research and innovation,” she points out.

Still, Goulard suggests that because their ‘universal’ vision of the world, the “French are very sensitive to the issues surrounding globalisation”. Indeed, long before the credit crunch and the current global economic downturn, “France had begun to denounce abuses of the market economy and the distortion created by uncontrolled capital flows,” she argues.

Moreover, France has “much to offer the EU intellectually,” Goulard contends. Conceding that French efforts to support cultural diversity often look like another attempt to defend the French language, she argues that the political “intuition” to do so was justified by opinion polls that show many of Europe’s citizens to be “uncomfortable about threats to their national or regional identity”.

Goulard concludes that although France lacks the means to recapture the intellectual leadership of Europe on its own, it can offer “some of the intuitions and traditions that contributed to the shaping of Europe in the past”. 

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