Common European army may limit US arms industry’s sway over EU – French politician Pierre Lellouche

Emmanuel Macron won the presidential race in France by a wide margin, leaving his primary rival Le Pen in the dust. Now, the actual hard work of governing the country begins – tackling France’s economic slowdown, unemployment, immigration, and, of course, terrorism. How firm is Macron’s mandate? How much power does he actually have in his hands – and how is he going to use it? We ask former French secretary of state for European affairs – Pierre Lellouche is on SophieCo.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: France’s ex-State Secretary for European Affairs, former member of the Republican party, Pierre Lellouche, welcome to the show, great to have you with us. Now, Mr. Macron rides into his presidency with more than 60% of votes, but a third of French voters abstained or put in a blank ballot, and a lot of others only voted for Macron because they were against Le Pen. How is Mr. Macron going to work with such a reluctant mandate? What can he offer those who only voted for him out of necessity?

Pierre Lellouche: It’s a very new and complex situation. What this shows is the collapse of the traditional party system under the 5th Republica. Since 1958, the country was governed alternatively between the right and the left. Those parties have been defeated, and they will take a very-very long time, before they can reconstruct themselves. So that leaves mr. Macron in a very central position with only Marine Le Pen and the extreme right in front of him, and to a certain extent, the extreme left as well. So, he has a field day today because the two of the parties, the traditional parties, didn’t know what to do with this result. My party chose, in effect, to support Macron for the second round. That’s why I resigned, because I found it totally self-defeating to call for voting for Macron and then campaign against him for the legislative election. It is completely contradictory. The second problem is that if you line up all the parties against the National Front, you end up having a system in which Macron controls, in effect, all the French political class. So, contrary to what you said, he was elected with a large majority and today he’s in the position to win big time in the legislative election, because the opposition party has simply disappeared.

SS: Runner up Marine Le Pen has stepped down as Front National leader, dropped her case for leaving the EU and now she’s saying her party may abandon its strong anti-Euro stance too. Is she already preparing ground for the next presidential election? Is there a chance some of the French may accept a more pro-European Le Pen - or it’s just the mere name of Le Pen  still too scary for potential supporters?

PL: It’s a mixture of all this. Clearly there are major tensions inside the National Front after her very disappointing debate against Macron in between the two rounds. There’s a question about leaving the Euro which scares a large number of French people, including pensioners who are afraid of losing 30% of the value of their pension. So,they have not worked out a convincing case on the Euro. That, again, played into the hands of Macron, because the National Front showed itself as lacking credibility to take over the reign of the country at this time. Now, what this means is that Macron essentially will have probably every power in the country in the next 3 weeks or months, after he will probably win, very comfortably, easy, legislative elections for lack of opposition, and after that, of course, if he succeeds - all the better, if he fails we will have definitely a political crisis, because at this stage, from what I see on the landscape - there are no credible opposition party system at this moment in France.

SS: I was speaking to one of the French presidential candidates earlier  - Francois Asselineau from the Popular Republican Union, told me an interview that Macron’s victory is ‘a result of good marketing’. While Macron was able to sell his image to the French public, will he be able to turn that into real political action? 

PL: Well, it is good marketing and it is also a great deal of good analysis as well. He understood what I saw from the inside for years - which is the complete failure of both Republicans and Socialists to actually do the reforms that the country needed. So, the slow decline of a country has been going on for the last 25-30 years, a very large number of the unemployed people, over 10%, rising deficit, lack of structural reform and he had the nerve to actually try to do it from the outside, create a party and actually win. He was served by a very good marketing, the support of the media, which was, essentially, on his side, and the lack of serious leadership on the other sides. At the end of the day, Macron was served by good analysis, good marketing, very supporting press and this collective suicide of all of his rivals.

SS: The left voters carried Macron to power - but his program is very rightist, how are the people going to cope with this, it’s sort of a betrayal, right - and a move to the right?

PL: It’s a mix, really, it’s neither right nor left, he has borrowed from our program many of his economic reforms which are, by the way, absolutely needed in the country. the modernisation of the labor laws is indispensable and that he has borrowed from our program. The fiscal reform is so-so, some of it is from our ideas, some of his own, and as to the rest of it, his line is really characterised by a very pro-European line. His defence minister is Euro enthusiast, you know, his gesture to Germany on security, on defence, on the Euro is very... He’s doing a gambit. He’s essentially believing that he can get the Germans to support French reforms, and in the process, begin to modify some of the failings of the European Union. It’s a gambit. Not sure that others will accompany French reforms. So, it remains to be seen whether that will work.

SS: Russia’s President Putin may be meeting with Macron as soon as next week - what do you think, is the new French president an enemy, or a friend to Russia at this point?

PL: I hope we can rebuild trust and friendship, because I have long believed that Russia is part of our continent, is part of Europe, is part of our civilisation, that we have common enemies and it’s an absurdity to me to go around and start a new Cold War. We have many other issues on the table, including Islamic terrorism, which is a threat to both Russia and the West. So we need to sit down and rebuild trust. I hope President Macron will understand that, and stop the policy under Hollande which was to follow the erratic changes of the U.S. policy. I am very surprised by the twists and turns of American diplomacy over the last few years, as well as under Trump today. We started with a very pro-Russian Trump, now he’s very much anti-, we started with Trump that was extremely critical of Islamic fundamentalism and then he goes to Riyadh and declares that the best friend of the U.S. is the Wahhabi Kingdom. So, it’s very bizarre. What this means is that France must absolutely return to its strategy of national independence, which was the foreign policy of General De Gaulle.

SS: Do you feel like Macron has an opportunity to start with a clean slate in terms of foreign policy? He’s an economist, right - do you think he’s reasonable enough to allow economic interests to prevail in his foreign policy agenda?

PL: I think so. Clearly a very pragmatic person, he knows about international affairs because he has been in charge of international economics at Elysee as well as when he was finance minister - so I think he knows quite a bit about international affairs, and I hope he can make France an independent country again, that he’s capable of remaining an ally of the U.S. and at the same time a friend of Russia, that he can establish an independent voice of France in the Middle East which is not in bed only with one side of the battle. What we have in the Middle East is also a war of religion between Sunni and Shia. I see now that Trump is siding with Sunnis against Iran. I’m not sure this is a wise policy. I don’t think the West, and certainly France, should side with one side of the Muslim world against the other side, I think it’s a terrible mistake. We need to be able to be heard on both sides.

SS: France has historically played a mediating role on the continent, can it do so once again here?

PL: It can if it puts its house in order economically, and that’s why the first few months of Macron’s presidency will be crucial. If he can produce the kind of structural reform we need in the labor laws, in budget, in cost-cutting - then confidence will come back again, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be back to a leading economic role. We have a lot of assets. Unfortunately, there’s been no governing economic policy in the last 25 years. Hopefully it can be fixed. If we do that, then the rest of the continent will listen again. For the moment, only Germany is in charge of the continent, and it’s a situation which I don’t like, which I find potentially very unstable. So, France needs to be back on the first rank of the European scene alongside Germany and we need to be able to conduct a more robust policy vis-a-vis the U.S., because they are infringing on a number of strategic interests. Whether you’re talking about very large economic presence of the U.S., and in fact they don’t pay tax in Europe - all of the large, GAFA companies of the U.S. don’t pay any tax in Europe. We have a rollercoaster of American legislation being implemented by our companies, here in France, for example, with no reciprocity. So we have to rebalance this, and at the same time ensure the security system in which we are on par with U.S. and not subjected to them, and be able to construct a relationship  of friendship and confidence with Russia, because I don’t believe Russia is our enemy!

SS: The EU has always been driven by the Franco-German partnership, but since the French economy has been crumbling lately, the balance of power shifted towards Berlin. Can European integration move forward if France isn’t at the forefront of it? Can Paris regain political clout lost over the years?

PL: The first part of the job is to do internal reform and reconstruct credibility in the French economy. If we do that and if we manage to become heard again, then we can rebalance the whole EU. If we continue to pile up deficits and unemployment and have our debt owned by a pension fund in the U.S. - that’s not good for French independence. A lot of homework to do before we can be heard again and be really influential as we should be on the European scene.

SS: Just recently, Germany’s foreign minister said that radical EU reforms requiring treaty changes are "not realistic". Treaty changes would mean referendums across the whole of the EU. A year after Brexit, is anybody going to risk new votes on the status of the EU?

PL: There’s a lot of resistance in the European machinery to change. At the same time, it is clear that the European machinery is increasingly divorced from people in Europe and we cannot continue as it is. Let’s take, for example, commercial negotiations. For example, at the moment, commercial negotiations in Europe are led by one European commissioner, not by government, and concessions that are being made, for example, to Canada or the U.S., usually result in serious reciprocity and in complete absence of national states’ control over negotiations. This has to be changed. We cannot continue to be an open space for America, for China, without necessary self-defence mechanisms. That has to be dealt with, and it’s same in many-many other areas in the conduct of Europe. For example, the directive on foreign workers, EU workers. You cannot have workers going through borders and with much lower salaries and social charges doing competition on domestic labor market, because that is killing labor market, but that is also killing European ideas. This directive has to be modified. Until now, the Germans have been very resistant to change of anything, but history shows that if there are very important issues and there’s urgency, they too can change.

SS: Macron called for a Europe that is “closer to its citizens” - and is now talking about a European finance minister, a common European budget… how’s that going to bring Europe “closer to its citizens”?

PL: Well, what is needed in the European zone is not just an increased role for the European Central Bank in guaranteeing deficit and in intervening in the economic policy. What you need also is some kind of political management of the Eurozone, which has long been a French demand, from Sarkozy to Hollande and now Macron is adding the idea of a common finance minister. But of course, that assumes that you have conversions in the fiscal and social policies of the various members. That is a long shot, I’m not sure that in the Eurozone, you have all the countries, all the national governments, elected by their people, and they’re putting currency together - so there is a great deal of tension in the system, with very successful countries like Germany being called to pay for structural deficits of the poorer countries, like Greece. It cannot work unless all the countries converge towards a minimum fiscal and social common ground. That’s part of the job that Macron has to do internally in order to be convincing to the economic and political class in Germany. The Germans will never accept to be just bankers of the rest of the Eurozone, unless there’s such conversions.

SS: In one of his first overseas visits, Macron vowed France would step up the fight against Islamist militants in north and west Africa - with French forces already on the ground in Mali, is Macron going to widen France’s interventions in the region?

PL: Well, I’m not sure widening is a good idea. I am not sure that the solution of Sahel region is just military. A great deal has to do with the import of Wahhabi salafism from Saudi Arabia and Qatar in places like Tunisia and so on. A great deal has to do with internal stabilisation of these countries with proper and efficient economic assistance. I’m not sure that the militarisation of French presence in this area is a long-term solution. In fact, I’m convinced of the opposite. I’m convinced that military intervention is useful as you go in and out. When you go in, you must know how you get out, and you must know  the limit of your intervention. If your intervention is being used to stay forever - then you become a force of occupation. Russians have learned that in Afghanistan, we have learned that in Afghanistan ourselves, and we may be learning this, also, in Africa. What we must do is, in priority, fix Libya, because Libya is a major factor of destabilisation in this area, is find a constructive relationship with Algeria, it’s very difficult, because Algeria also bears heavily on the situation in this area, and try to find a way in which the countries of Sahel area which happened to be the poorest nation on Earth and the first nation in terms of demographic growth - you talking here of an average of 7 children per woman - in polygamous Muslim societies. Unless we change the nature of that demographic growth, better economic and better schools in these countries, you’re not going to fix the fact that many youngsters in these countries have essentially a choice between immigration or going into terrorism  or going into cigarette contraband… This is what happening. I’m not sure that having a large military footprint in the entire area without fixing the economic situation and social situation, will serve any purpose in the long term. I’ve just written the book saying that. I hope we can, he can - the president - look again at this situation with a fresh look, understand the use and the limit of military intervention.

SS: My final question is about Europe’s plans on a ‘joint foreign and defence policy’ - there are already plans for a 5 billion euro defence fund, an EU military headquarters is being launched. Is all this part of a wider ambition to create a separate EU army maybe?

PL: It’s a useful and necessary idea. It may have also some useful industrial component as a way to resist the overwhelming power of the U.S. over NATO and arms industry in Europe. I think it should be pursued, but it should be also pursued with opened eyes. I’ve learned long time ago that it’s easier said than done. First thing you need to do is make sure you have sufficient defence spending and then find ways to integrate this in a satisfactory fashion. This will be done piece-by-piece, over time. Some things already exist, for example in sharing of logistical platform, like long-haul aircraft, for example. This can be useful things to do, but what it takes is political will. At this stage I have difficulty in finding a joint political will, whether you’re talking about policy vis-a-vis Islamic threat, sufficient cooperation on the struggle against terrorism - very basic thing that needs to be done and is not being done -, agreement on what to do with Russia - I have trouble saying where it is -, agreement on what to do with the Middle East and the United States - I have, again, trouble to understand where Europe is going on all of that… So, until I see an eye-to-eye agreement between, let’s say, Macron and Merkel on the Middle East, on terrorism, on Russia, on Trump, for the moment it’s too early to say. I hope we can get useful political leadership, joint leadership.

SS: Alright. Thank you so much for this interesting interview. Mr. Lellouche, it’s been great pleasure talking to you. We were talking to Pierre Lellouche, French politician, former State Secretary for European Affairs, talking about where the new French president’s reforms may take him and his country and Europe. That’s it for this edition of SophieCo, I will see you next  time.