Current Socio-Political Situation in France and U.S. Elections with Célia Belin [PODCAST]

European Liberal Forum

Why are French farmers protesting? What is the current socio-political situation in France? And what can we make of the forthcoming EU elections and the presidential race in the United States? Leszek Jazdzewski (Fundacja Liberte!) talks with Célia Belin,a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and head of its Paris office since January 2023.

Leszek Jażdżewski (LJ): How have the violent protests of farmers influenced the campaign to the European election in France?

Celia Belin (CB): It is not only about campaigns for the European election. France is an expert in protests – especially violent protests. We have a long tradition of taking to the streets – from the French revolution to the Yellow Vest protests in 2018, and now to the farmers protesting earlier this year.

However, it does not always produce results. Actually, last year, if you remember, pension strikes were happening all over France for several months, and yet the government maintained its reform and decided not to take those protests into account. This time around, with the farmers, it has been slightly different. We are in a political season and the government did not want the farmers’ protests in France to escalate. But what we are noticing is that those protests are happening at the same time all over Europe.

The reason for that phenomenon is that there is a lot at stake regarding the future of agricultural policy in Europe, the implementation of the Green Deal, and the pressures that the farmers are feeling. Another challenge is posed by the potential integration into the EU of a massive agro-industrial power, which is Ukraine, and the types of pressure it would put on both countries and their agricultural systems. The polls are already showing it.

Therefore, as far as the French protests are concerned, they were handled quite rapidly. President Macron made some concessions straight away – he did not escalate the conflict, spent several billions of euros, and is hoping that the problem will go away for now.

LJ: There is talk that the Green Deal will be reformed or might even be cancelled to some extent. Do you think that the fact that suddenly it seems that there is very little support for the Green Deal is a result of problems with communication?

CB: The idea that the Green New Deal could be simply cancelled or bypassed does not work politically in a French context. There was a very interesting ECFR study released earlier this year, in which Europeans were asked about what was the single most important threat, risk, or challenge that they felt was the most pressing issue ahead of the European elections. What we have seen is that Europeans do not share the same worries. Some of them worry about Ukraine the most, some of them worry about immigration the most, and the French actually worry the most about climate.

Therefore, even if the Greens or the Socialists are not in power in France, climate action is actually important to the French government. What matters is that the implementation of the Green Deal would be effective, so that both the French government and Emmanuel Macron can claim that they have put together climate action and energy transition policies, but at the same time that it is socially acceptable – in particular, with regard to farmers, so that social peace can be maintained.

This is why the French government is a bit of a conundrum – it is trying to have its cake and eat it too and do both at the same time. We have had two different types of signaling from the French government: one to say that there was too much environmental and climate regulation coming from Brussels, but at the same time they say that, actually, we are going to implement the Green Deal. President Macron knows that the French care about climate action.

LJ: President Macron recently made comments about not ruling out the possibility of NATO soldiers being deployed to Ukraine. How was it received and what did he have in mind?

CB: There is a larger context here that needs to be explained, because almost like everybody else, I was a bit taken aback by Macron’s remarks. I was wondering why are they being made now? His statement seems divisive and counterproductive – especially in the context of a waning appetite for supporting Ukraine. The second half of 2023 has been particularly detrimental to European support for Ukraine for several reasons.

One of the reasons is that the Ukrainian counteroffensive was inefficient, it did not work. No territories were recovered. Earlier, the first counteroffensive made Europeans start to believe that Ukraine could win and so they started supporting Ukraine more. This time around, however, they are more pessimistic about the possibility of Ukraine winning. Less than 10% across Europe believe that Ukraine might win and twice as many believe that Russia might actually win. Even if they do not want to, they tend to be pessimistic and believe it might just happen.

The second reason is that they are also noticing the potential return of Donald Trump and the implications of such a development for the support of Ukraine. As a result, Europeans feel lonelier. They might not get American support anymore.

The third one is that Russia seems to be amplifying the threats it is putting on Europe. The hybrid warfare is all across the board – it consists of cyber-attacks, contestation in space and in the Arctic, which leads to direct interests being threatened. This hostility makes Europeans feel pressure.

All of these tense moments– in the eyes of French as well as President Macron – have put us all in a ‘loser mentality’, as Macron calls it (even though it is a rather strong word), or in a defeatist spirit. It is as if we have already lost, as if there is nothing else we can do, so we should just throw in the towel and declare that this is a lost cause. To come to that, he wants to re-inject what he calls ‘strategic ambiguity’ and just go out there and say, ‘No, no, no, actually our determination is strong’.

The public opinion needs a little bit of political mobilization coming from its leaders. Therefore, now is the time to demonstrate that our commitments to Ukraine are secure and long lasting. They do not depend on the United States nor on the counteroffensive. They depend on the assessment we make that Russia cannot let Russia win. That even with war fatigue, we are ready to go further, including potentially having military personnel on the ground – not necessarily in a combat position, but simply having more European reinforcement.

That is the logic behind President Macron’s statements. At first, it came as a surprise. Later, there was very strong political opposition from the far left, the far right, but also the traditional right, who said that this approach is irresponsible and is pushing us towards the brink of a war. On the other hand, there is the French public opinion, which appreciates the determination that comes out of it. The French tend to be interventionists, militarily-wise, and they do not shy away from it. Therefore, politically, it might not be such a bad bet on part of Macron.

LJ: The mood in Europe seems to strongly depend on the situation on the Ukrainian front – and rightly so. We were satisfied with the European response from a year ago, but now we are gloomy about the fact that there is little to be done. Should we feel like that in the current situation? How should Europeans approach the Russian war in Ukraine, especially with the looming threat of Donald Trump’s presidency in the United States?

CB: It all comes down to the core of Macron’s method and the way he interacts with his European counterparts. He tends to make his own judgement and then throw it in the mix without good enough coordination. He publicly pushes the Germans to do more without necessarily clearing it with them before that. As a result, it leads to public clashes, which are not positive, and which stem from Macron’s willingness to provoke in the short run.

Such an approach could be counterproductive, because what the Russians saw immediately after Macron reestablished the so-called ‘strategic ambiguity’, demonstrated the determination to potentially send personnel on the ground. In the longer run, however, Europeans always tend to reach an agreement, and so within the next six months, we might see these different positions getting closer.

There were moments in the past, when Macron was off with the rest of Europeans on talking to Russia, and that was a huge mistake and provocation for the rest of Europe. Then, however, he got closer to the positions of the rest of Europe. It is his classic move. Fundamentally, though, the German-French positions are far away from each other, and they are not getting that much closer, so it takes time and effort to really bring them together.

What also matters is that Poland was one of the biggest advocates for Ukraine and in favor of a tough response to Russia, but now the country is dealing with its own political clashes. Therefore, the Weimar format and the capacity of the three countries – Germany, France, and Poland – to work together will be crucial in the next few months.

LJ: How do you see the Europeans playing a role in the war in the future? Shall we try to get Ukraine into NATO? Or do you think we should keep them fighting as long as it takes while we are ready to respond to Russia militarily? What do you think should be our long game?

CB: It is a tough question, and I am not a 100% convinced on what route to take. I am very mindful and admirative of people who actually know what we should be doing. Russia will continue to put full pressure not only on Ukraine, but in longer term on NATO allies. I think Russia does not leave us any choice in terms of having to reestablish a balance of power with Russia, and to not only put Ukraine in the best possible position to negotiate, even though negotiations might not happen anytime soon.

Therefore, we must resist and defend ourselves, which might translate into integrating Ukraine into NATO. However, I do not think the Americans are ready to go down that route and will likely veto it – at least this administration. It is also unlikely that the next one will be ready to integrate Ukraine into NATO either.

In this particular case, we, Europeans, need to be very clear about our security guarantees to Ukraine, provide them regardless of whether or not they join NATO. Security guarantees involve weapons delivery, a long-term security plan, as well as political security that Ukraine has a future within the European Union.

This is why it is not just about entering NATO, which might not just be possible at this point. Russia is waging a war on us, and we have no other choice but to fight it. That was the message that the French president wants to convey to the French public as well: it is not the time to waver. However, it is also a message that it is neither up to American voters nor the Russian regime to decide the future of Europe – it is up to Europeans.

We should decide the course of action ourselves – regardless of the pressure exerted by Russia or the choices of Americans. We must decide how we view the security of our continent, where do we view its borders, which countries do we want to get inside the EU, and which democracies are worth protecting. And, for the time being, the message to Ukraine is and should remain clear.

LJ: Do populisms and nationalisms pose a real threat to European integration in the long term?

CB: Radical right-wing parties – or populist parties on both sides, but in particular, the far right – have taken note of what happened to the UK after Brexit. It is now crystal clear to them that the future out of the EU is just not a good future. Even Viktor Orban – who is potentially one of their heroes, depending on how they approach Hungary – knows how to actually join the European consensus when he needs to. In order to be secure, one needs to remain inside the EU and not be totally alienated.

Therefore, even if these partners are reluctant and difficult, by and large, since 2016 (so not only Brexit, but then Trump, COVID-19, and the pressures from Russia and China), these parties have become convinced that they are actually stronger together, remaining inside Europe. What they might do is change the nature of Europe. They could do that if they were to secure big wins, thus launching a full attack on regulations, climate action, women’s rights, LGBTQI rights, migration policies, or at least launch a big debate on these issues, but without calling as much into question the institutions themselves – as we might have seen previously.

On the other hand, the geopolitical consequence of these parties winning are not so clear in terms of the relations between Ukraine and Russia, because they are deeply divided on their relationship to Russia – thankfully, I would say. Many of them have been long admirers of Vladimir Putin, of Russia, but not all of them. Meanwhile, some of them have been nationalists that are not necessarily as enthusiastic about Russia’s influence. Others, such as Giorgia Meloni’s coalition, are very strongly pro-American, or at least trans-Atlantic, and they place their interest in being in that crowd. All this makes them very different from Le Pen in France, and potentially very different from Viktor Orban as well. So, the lack of unity on geopolitics will also mean that it is likely to be more dominated by a coalition from left to right in terms of the geopolitics of Europe.

This being said, the influence of Donald Trump will be great, and will continue to grow. I expect only few populist nationalist parties to remain really anti-American if Donald Trump were to re-enter the White House. He is a folk hero to all of them. And in a nightmare scenario of an alignment between Trump and Putin, the pressures would increase tremendously in Europe on these nationalist populist parties.

This, however, is a long-shot scenario. The divisions in that camp mean that for the time being, the geopolitics of Europe will not likely be completely overtaken by even a substantial win of these parties in the June elections.

LJ: Will the U.S. presidential elections surprise us in November? And how will it play out for Europe if the surprise happens?

CB: After the win of Donald Trump and Super Tuesday, and confirmation of Joe Biden as the Democratic nominee, it feels that the playing field is set, and we already know who is going to fight it out. And it is the most unenthusiastic of battles. It is just a replay of the 2020 election – with very high stakes, but also very strong tiredness around this perspective. However, a lot of crazy stuff can happen in the span of eight months, especially when you talk about U.S. politics.

We have to remember that in 2020, between the time of Super Tuesday and the election, the COVID-19 pandemic was yet to happen, and that was major disruption. Trump contracted COVID-19 and had he been five years older, who knows if he would have survived it, actually. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Supreme Court Justice, died a month prior to the election and then was swiftly replaced in a major mobilization win by the Republicans, but also a mobilization win by Democrats.

Surprises come and go. If you look back to eight months ago, to October 7, by then, the war in Gaza had not happened yet. And this single war has changed the destiny of Joe Biden and his coalition and has weakened him tremendously. So, a lot more can happen in those eight months on that front, but on many other that would really transform the perception that the American voters have of Biden and of Trump. It could potentially take this election race in an entirely different direction.

At the moment, it is looking pretty good for Donald Trump, but the campaign has not started yet. The Democrats have not really been fully on board with supporting Biden. However, since a lot more will happen, we should wait until September, October come and figure it out closer to the date.

This podcast is produced by the European Liberal Forum in collaboration with Movimento Liberal Social and Fundacja Liberté!, with the financial support of the European Parliament. Neither the European Parliament nor the European Liberal Forum are responsible for the content or for any use that be made of.

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