French status seeking in a changing world: taking on the role as the guardian of the liberal order

Abstract

France has a long history as a traditional European great power. But is this still the case today? The analysis in this article shows how French exceptionalism, often referred to as ‘grandeur’ is still the guiding principle of French foreign policy, but that it is being practised differently today. President Macron may be right in arguing that ‘France is back’, but it is important to note that modern French power projection or status seeking takes place through a set of very different mechanisms. The key argument put forward in this article is that French status is increasingly based on a type of symbolic power, and to understand the mechanisms through which this power is managed, insights from social psychology and Social Identification Theory (SIT) are helpful. SIT points to three different strategies for maintaining a position within a social hierarchy that may also be valid for international politics: social mobility, social competition and social creativity. While France has adopted different types of strategies in earlier periods (social mobility in the immediate post-war years and social competition during the Cold War), the analysis in this article shows that French foreign policy practices are now increasingly being legitimised through the creation of a new narrative. Interestingly, this narrative consists of the current French political leadership’s eagerness to take on the role as ‘the guardian of the liberal order’, which fits nicely with what SIT identify as a strategy of social creativity.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The French are often perceived as taking a great pride in national identity and the positive achievements of France. For instance, the French Revolution claimed universalism for the democratic principles of the Republic. In the post war period, Charles de Gaulle actively promoted a notion of French "grandeur" ("greatness"), which has come to be a defining aspect of French foreign policy.

  2. 2.

    Toute ma vie, je me suis fait une certaine idée de la France. Le sentiment me l'inspire aussi bien que la raison. Ce qu'il y a en moi d'affectif imagine naturellement la France, telle la princesse des contes ou la madone aux fresques des murs, comme vouée à une destinée éminente et exceptionnelle. J'ai, d'instinct, l'impression que la Providence l'a créée pour des succès achevés ou des malheurs exemplaires. S'il advient que la médiocrité marque, pourtant, ses faits et gestes, j'en éprouve la sensation d'une absurde anomalie, imputable aux fautes des Français, non au génie de la patrie. Mais aussi, le côté positif de mon esprit me convainc que la France n'est réellement elle-même qu'au premier rang; que, seules, de vastes entreprises sont susceptibles de compenser les ferments de dispersion que son peuple porte en lui-même; que notre pays, tel qu'il est, parmi les autres, tels qu'ils sont, doit, sous peine de danger mortel, viser haut et se tenir droit. Bref, à mon sens, la France ne peut être la France sans la grandeur.

  3. 3.

    While Macron is not the first French leader to address both houses of parliament, such addresses are rare and typically reserved for times of crisis. It was only in 2008 that Sarkozy made the constitutional reform to allow presidents to address parliament in person. Prior to that, they could only address both houses through written speeches that were read aloud by the prime minister. Since then, there have only been two such addresses at Versailles: the first was given by when Sarkozy announced his plans to ban the burka in 2009 and the second by Hollande in the aftermath of the 2015 terrorist attacks. Macron, however, has pledged that the address would become an annual tradition of his presidency.

  4. 4.

    L’action politique n’a de sens que si elle est accomplie au nom d’une certaine idée de l’homme, de son destin, de sa valeur indépassable et de sa grandeur. Cette idée, la France la porte depuis longtemps. Rien d’autre ne doit compter à nos yeux (Macron 2017a).

  5. 5.

    https://za.ambafrance.org/Speech-by-President-Emmanuel-Macron-Ambassadors-Week-2017.

  6. 6.

    The president was initially chosen by an electoral college but, after a 1962 referendum, this was changed to direct election.

  7. 7.

    France has kept a range of diplomats called envoys or plenipotentiary ministers. In France, such high-level diplomats are usually referred to as ‘ministers’; while they are not considered as representatives of the head of state, they have plenipotentiary powers, i.e. full authority to represent the government. Until the mid-twentieth century, most diplomats in the world had the rank of minister (or envoy), with ambassadors being exchanged only among major nations, or close allies and related monarchies. After the Second World War, however, it was no longer deemed acceptable to treat some nations as inferior to others, given the UN doctrine of the equality of sovereign states, and the rank of envoy for the highest-ranking officials of diplomatic missions gradually disappeared. In addition, nowadays heads of state and of government, as well as more junior ministers and officials, can easily meet or speak with each other personally. With the need for a special category of ‘envoy’ becoming less obvious, most countries decided to drop the title.

  8. 8.

    At the United Nations Security Council, decisions are adopted with a majority of 9 votes out of the 15 votes of the Council’s members. Any decision is rejected if one of the five Security Council permanent members uses its veto power.

  9. 9.

    http://www.franceonu.org/France-and-UN-Reform.

  10. 10.

    http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/dec/13/paris-climate-deal-cop-diplomacy-developing-united-nations.

  11. 11.

    l’influence de la France dans l’Union européenne est aujourd’hui affaiblie. L’affaiblissement de l’influence française résulte en partie des vagues d’élargissement successifs à l’Est depuis 2004. […]. Mais ce sont surtout les mauvaises performances économiques et budgétaires de la France qui ont conduit à son affaiblissement sur la scène.

  12. 12.

    Pour être influente en Europe, la France doit mieux comprendre le fonctionnement de celle-ci, et adopter des «réflexes européens»: anticiper, partager l’information, faire des coalitions, éviter l’arrogance.

  13. 13.

    http://www.euractiv.com/section/justice-home-affairs/news/france-at-war-inaugurates-eu-s-mutual-defence-clause/.

  14. 14.

    In 2014 the French government announced that it would use the Arabic-derived term ‘Daech in place of the previous name for the Islamic State group, EIIL, or ‘Etat Islamique en Irak et au Levant.’ Daech/Daesh is a short form of the full Arabic name for the Islamic State group, al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Iraq wa ash-Sham. The explanation given by the then French Minister of Foreign Affairs was that it was important to distinguish this group from the religion, and also not to indicate that the group was a state, which it is not http://www.franceinfo.fr/actu/article/doit-dire-daesh-ou-etat-islamique-568431.

  15. 15.

    However, this is only possible at the expense of complying with the Treaty of the EU, and the rules of the Eurozone, which require a public deficit to be no higher than 3% of the GDP. So, far France has got acceptance for this due to the security situation, but the question is how long this will last. France has already got a two-year prolongation to get down the deficit two times—in 2013 and in 2015 and the Commission has now refused in September this year to give a third prolongation.

  16. 16.

    La République participe au développement de la solidarité et de la coopération entre les États et les peuples ayant le français en partage (http://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/fr/politique-etrangere-de-la-france/francophonie-et-langue-francaise/la-francophonie/la-francophonie-en-france/).

  17. 17.

    http://www.aefe.fr.

  18. 18.

    Le Bureau des Légendes is a French political thriller television series created by Éric Rochant and produced by Canal+, which revolves around the lives of agents of the DGSE (General Directorate of External Security), France's principal external security service. It has received positive reviews in both France and other countries and won several awards.

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Rieker, P. French status seeking in a changing world: taking on the role as the guardian of the liberal order. Fr Polit 16, 419–438 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41253-018-0078-5

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Keywords

  • France
  • Foreign policy
  • Status
  • Influence
  • Symbolic power