Game, set and match: Putin has helped France become the new master of Europe

The war in Ukraine and the interlinked energy shock have revealed the deep strategic strengths of France. Geopolitics has lifted the weight of Paris in European affairs, and diminished Berlin.

The French have a credible energy system. They have an agro-industrial core that acquires strategic value in the impending global food crisis. They have armed forces worth the name and a nuclear deterrent capable of striking at every level.

Emmanuel Macron has not covered himself in glory since the start of the Russia-Ukraine conflict but the chips have fallen France’s way.Credit:AP

The Germans lack all of this. It is becoming ever clearer that 16 years of depressed public investment and clammy mercantilist reliance on Russia and China under Angela Merkel have degraded the country, leaving it floundering as the world reverts to its eternal Hobbesian character.

This reshuffling of fortunes has little to do with Emmanuel Macron. The same structural strengths would come through under a president Le Pen, who would not leave NATO, whatever nonsense she uttered before Putinism went out of fashion.

It is happening as Germany’s demographic crunch starts in earnest. Berlin expects the workforce to peak next year and then to decline by 5 million over the course of the 2020s, pushing the old-age dependency ratio above 50 per cent. France (like the UK) is on a very different trajectory.

As Putin’s war pushes the UN’s food price index to a record high, the Élysée is seizing on the moment to derail the EU’s “farm to fork strategy”, a set of measures that spell the end of the old common agricultural policy and its mega-subsidies for French agro conglomerates. The reforms pushed by German and Nordic greens aim to halve the use of pesticides and raise the organic share of produce to 25 per cent by 2030. It pushes an ethos of sustainable farming with less use of animal feed.

President Macron has other plans. “It was based on a world before the war in Ukraine, and would cut production by 13 per cent. In no circumstances can Europe contemplate producing less,” he said.

That loss of 13 per cent is disputed. It skips over the science showing that status quo industrial farming erodes the soil and is untenable. But ecological objections are being swept away by the new refrain of European agricultural sovereignty.

Brussels is bending to pressure from the agrichemical multinationals. It has delayed the revised directive on sustainable use of pesticides, and another on ecosystems.

It is a parallel story on the energy front. The worst gas crisis in living memory has finally ended the era when Germany could export its anti-nuclear ideology through EU regulations. Berlin has been unable to stop France labelling nuclear power a form of clean energy under Europe’s €1 trillion ($1.5 trillion) Green Deal. This unlocks large investment flows.

France’s nuclear power has proved to be a strategic buffer at a time of crisis, valued as Europe tries to slash dependence on Russian gas.Credit:Getty

Putin has rehabilitated France’s nuclear industry, which still provides 70 per cent of its electricity. The network was in trouble earlier this winter when a fifth of its 56 reactors were shut for safety reasons, and France had to fire up two old coal plants. It is still in trouble, of course. The first Hinkley-style reactor at Flamanville has been delayed again until 2023, 12 years late and four times over budget.

State-owned EDF expects a €26 billion hit this year, partly because it is being forced to provide energy below market prices to help Macron’s re-election. It will need a state bailout, so this consumer subsidy is disguised taxation. Nevertheless, France’s nuclear power has proved to be a strategic buffer at a time of crisis, valued as Europe tries to slash dependence on Russian gas.

It is Germany that is struggling to explain why it closed three well-functioning reactors in January, and why it plans to close the last three later this year, yet still insists that a gas embargo against Russia is too traumatic to contemplate.

France has the landmass and latitude to roll out a huge expansion of solar at viable cost. Macron is pushing for a tenfold increase to 100 gigawatts and has ordered a fast-track planning drive to end “intolerable delays and barriers”.

French solar is likely to prove the cheapest form of mass energy in core Europe and could turn France into the backbone of the EU’s electrification strategy, along with UK offshore wind.

France is indisputably the EU’s paramount military power, and the shock of full-blown Russian aggression has turned this into gold dust at Europe’s top table.

As for the balance of military credibility, the war in Ukraine has exposed the full damage left by 15 years of German penny-pinching and disarmament. Defence minister Christine Lambrecht admitted this week that the Bundeswehr has exhausted its stocks and cannot ship more weapons to Ukraine without endangering Germany’s ability to defend itself. “I have to be honest, we have now reached a limit,” she said.

Macron has hardly covered himself with glory since the onset of the Ukraine crisis. He scoffed at US and UK warnings that Russia was poised to attack. He became Putin’s useful idiot in early February, falling for assurances of “de-escalation”.

He has continued to legitimise Putin by talking to him promiscuously. He has sent Milan anti-tank weapons to Ukraine but only in modest numbers. One almost has the impression that Macron’s policy, like that of chancellor Olaf Scholz, is to nudge the Ukrainians into early capitulation to be done with the problem.

The German economy is facing a number of headwinds, including an ageing workforce.Credit:Bloomberg

But France is indisputably the EU’s paramount military power, and the shock of full-blown Russian aggression has turned this into gold dust at Europe’s top table.

The spoiler for France’s rising fortunes is that the country is on a trajectory of slow fiscal ruin with arguably the highest structural deficit in the OECD. Its public debt has reached Club Med levels of 116 per cent of GDP, up 18 points since the start of the pandemic. The debt gap with Germany has widened to 50 percentage points.

But this loses relevance once Paris gets its hands on Berlin’s credit card through a permanent EU “fiscal entity”, a euphemism for a Hamiltonian EU treasury able to raise debt collectively.

French hopes of turning Europe’s €800 billion ($1.16 trillion) one-off COVID recovery fund (actually nothing to do with COVID) into an irreversible debt union was going nowhere a few months ago. Putin has come to the rescue.

There is a rising chance that it will be beefed up and repurposed for the cause of energy solidarity. Brussels is exploring options for some sort of Ukraine fund (which will have nothing to do with Ukraine) to keep the game going for joint EU debt issuance, until it becomes irreversible practice by the Monnet method of creepage.

If so, chapeau, mes amis. Or as we say: game, set and match to France.

Telegraph, London

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