France, Central-Eastern Europe, and Russia
There are two constant traits in the French elite intellectual worldview:
- unconcealed unconditional sentiment to Russia,
- overwhelming disregard towards nations of Central-East Europe (CEE).
And neither brings actual advantage to France!
Historical misfortunes of nations surrounded on the playground of central-eastern Europe by colliding Prussian, Russian, Habsburg, and Ottoman empires gained the region distinctively liquid and undifferentiated character within the Western public opinion. Collectively recognized as citizens of unspecified principalities geographically positioned “somewhere in the Carpathians” (roughly between Anthony Hope’s Ruritania and Hergé’s Borduria), they suffer endless torment of the political overlook and cultural disregard.
This is in strong contrast to the popular perception of Russia in the West. Regardless of its endless idiosyncrasies which give this country-specific “Russia is a state of mind” status, Russia and Russians are perceived as both legitimate and indispensable parts of the European civilization. The latter is especially true in France. Françoise Thom described this sentiment in the following words:
“France has a long tradition of Russophilia, sometimes spontaneous, often venal. Not skimping on the pelisses offered to the cautious philosopher, Catherine II had succeeded in persuading Voltaire to present the partition of Poland as a progressive measure since it would make it possible to neutralize obscurantist Catholicism in this country and to establish the freedom of consciousness. Then a large and old Russian emigration; a long tradition of anti-Americanism, more virulent today than ever; a strong anti-liberal tropism, in which the right and the left meet; finally, structural proximity to Russia, which is very important. Economically and politically, France is a state-owned country, with Jacobin centralizing leanings. This centralized structure is understandable to the Kremlin and it simplifies the task of identifying places of power and decision and, therefore, it facilitates penetration and influence. Add an old collaborationist tradition, which stems from the chronic feeling of the French of being badly governed.”
The profound influence of this attitude over the French elites is translated into political views in a noticeable way: regardless of who is in scope – say liberal president Emmanuel Macron, right-wing nationalist Marine Le Pen or the leader of the Left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon – all of them overlook vital interests of the East-European nations looking for some form of “friendly agreement” with permanently assertive Russia.
Nevertheless, while the “Gaullist” tone of president Macron’s remarks about “Europe from Lisbon to the Urals” is somewhat mitigated by his liberal bindings to human rights and rules of the international law, vernacular “realism” of the French right-wingers seems to reflect political brutalism of the XIX century’s “concert of powers” where the formula “Russia first” is realized through the neglect of strategic security of the East-Europeans. We could notice this sort of thinking recently when Mrs. Marine Le Pen claimed boldly: “Ukraine naturally belongs to the Russian zone of influence”.
It seems the driving force behind such a viewpoint is right-wing disgust with American liberalism and the American scent of democracy blended with nostalgia after own old imperial grandeur. That is condensed in the opinion that if Europe is about to grow into a superpower and get rid of American domination, it has to find support from powerful Russia. This pattern is clearly visible in the writing of the acclaimed author Emmanuel Todd as well as in the opinions of many other public intellectuals in France.
This style of thinking merges well with the ideas of the influential Russian thinker and critic of American liberalism, Alexander Dugin, who promulged the concept of “Neo-Eurasianism” along with his “fourth political theory” gaining recognition among French right-wing intellectuals like Alain de Benoist.
Such a “strategic alliance” of leading European powers and Russia against global American dominance looks like some kind of “objet petit a” for a vast part of the French intellectuals as well as business entrepreneurs and political activists. A practical example is for instance “Paris-Berlin-Moscow” initiative of Mr. Henri de Grossouvre, Director of Foresight of the SUEZ Group, who constantly delivers tantalizing visions of enormous future profits resulting from economic cooperation along this continental axis.
But, what is the practical impact of defining French East-European politics through the Russian lenses? Hereunder we will try to argue France is massively harmed by her Russia-oriented foreign politics. Consequently, we advise right-wing presidential candidates to radically change this orientation in their political program.
Regardless of multiple attempts to improve mutual relations between France and Russia – the main beneficiary of the economical exchange with Russia and “new” members of the European Union level is not France but Germany:
Table 1. 2020 exports in € (billion)
It is particularly interesting, Germany overshadows France not only in terms of the nearly fourfold advantage in export to Russia but also a nearly 7-fold advantage in terms of its total exports to the “new” member states of the EU. Such an enormous advantage is hard to be explained in terms of pure economy, geographical proximity, or cultural influence. Of course, these are all important factors but there is also an interesting political perspective: one can easily notice that for the entire period of the past 15 years, since the chancellorship of Gerhard Schröder, Germany is consequently empowering Russia through political engagement and various economic initiatives at the cost of the geopolitical stability and security of the CCE region. In fact – as it was pointed out by Céline Marangé and Susan Stewart from Chatham House: “In the case of Germany, part of the political elite firmly believes that isolation of Russia must be avoided at virtually any cost”. And Stefanie Babst, former NATO official, wrote in piece for the German Council on Foreign Relations that in Germany “a considerable part of the public thinks that Russia should be granted an exclusive zone of influence in exchange for keeping up gas supplies”. It is also worth noting that the intensity of Russo-German bilateral relations is regularly used by the German government as an argument against the severity of international sanctions implemented as a deterrent measure against Russia’s adventurism.
While political analysts seem baffled and provide dubious explanations for German attachment to Russia, they often see this single-sided. They indicate German companies profit from trade with Russia, that Russia provides energetic raw materials and metals at competitive prices, which is good for German economy, or that German business finds fertile investment ground in Russia due to its low labor costs and well-educated working class. This is all true, but there is also another important point.
Germany learned to employ increasingly assertive Russia as a lever to coerce Central-East European EU member states bordering with Russia into the frame of the refurbished version of the old Prussian concept of Mitteleuropa.
This is the idea to turn emancipating post-communist countries between the Oder, Dnieper, and Donau rivers into a series of dependent states whose political, economic, and military aspects would be under the control of Germany and Russia. The western part of the region is to serve as an economic backyard of Germany, or the German sphere of influence to further strengthen the power of Germany within the European Union. To facilitate this plan, Germany heavily invests in Russia allowing its authoritarian regime to fund its militaristic ends and use strategic resources like natural gas or metals to exercise raw power over its “near abroad”. Communicating directly over the heads of its neighbors, Berlin and Moscow play the old imperial game with a purpose to dominate the region dividing it roughly in the middle and turning its countries into a sort of buffer zone of limited sovereignty (vide recent Russian ultimatum concerning the status of NATO in the region). Using plain words, the intent is to make Warsaw and other capitals of the region so scared of Moscow that in the lack of appropriate alternatives they submit to Berlin (via Brussels).
Germany is also systematically undermining or trying to take over regional geopolitical initiatives like Trimarium intended to empower CEE states through intensification of mutual relations between the countries of the Adriatic-Baltic-Black Sea triangle, particularly in the domains of energy, transportation, and information technology. These countries are in course of huge infrastructural investments like the Turkey-Ukraine-Poland multimodal trade route, “Via Carpatia” international motorway connecting Balkans with Baltic Sea, new airport and transportation hub in central Poland or North-South Gas Corridor undermining Russo-German dominance on the gas market in the region.
Permanent destabilization of the CEE region by Russia and its proxies through intimidation, military threats, fake news campaigns, blackmail, or even sabotage creates an atmosphere of strategic uncertainty that effectively slows investment and development and renders long-term planning less feasible. That helps Berlin to keep the region dependent on German logistic entry points and politically susceptible to its influence.
France’s unreflective participation in German “Ostpolitik” is not helping France’s position at all. Blind bet on Russia characterizing French foreign policy was often interpreted by the states of CCE as “strategic ambivalence” and was one of the reasons France lost lucrative defense contracts in Poland (helicopters) and Romania (land-to-sea missiles). Countries of Central-Eastern Europe never accepted to be in an unsolicited manner subscribed to the Russian sphere of influence – a tacit but viable assumption for many French politicians. Throughout recent years France too many times proved its understanding of geopolitics follows Russian, not CEE interest. The EU-Russia summit proposed by Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron in June 2021 was too much and resulted in a spectacular objection by all “new” members of the EU and the failure of this infamous initiative.
Specifically, French understanding of European sovereignty in terms of “concert of powers” with Germany and France organizing EU’s relations with the external world under the umbrella of Brussels at the cost of significant disregard to the interests of EU’s eastern flank is completely wrong and instead of building trust and understanding within European community creates suspicions and disharmony. As the result, states of the EU’s eastern flank look for protection in Washington and distance themselves from the idea of centralized EU foreign politics. Thus – French objectives never materialize and the sole beneficiary is Germany monopolizing EU’s “eastern” politics according to its own economic interests through shameless cooperation with Russia. No wonder this attitude was interpreted as intrinsic weakness by Russia itself who sent its mercenaries to Africa disturbing French strategic interest on this continent. This is in line with well-known “push the weak” Russia’s strategy in international affairs. In fact – if France wanted to leverage its international reputation as an important “moderator” in terms of the strategic balance of power – Russia said “niet,” and shoved France back to its corner.
France urgently needs a decisive reset in terms of her attitude to Central-East Europe. This might be particularly interesting for the French Right: societies of CEE countries are remarkably more conservative than the Western European average and right-wing governments in the region could become its “natural” partners on the EU platform counterbalancing its progressive agenda. Closer co-operation with CEE countries would benefit France’s economy and could be helpful to raise the overall French position in the EU balancing the political and economic power of Germany. Last but not least – empowering the eastern flank of Europe would create a much better climate for further EU integration what is hardly possible under current circumstances where “new” Europe is constantly lectured about “European values” and treated as a semi-colonial province obedient to Western metropolises. Societies of CEE states preserved the heritage of Euro-centric traditionalism, and contrary to Russia, stay far from authoritarian leadership. If European right-wingers are looking for “katechon” – they do not need to look further east. They may easily find it in Budapest, Bucharest, or Warsaw.