Article by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard
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 in equal measure.
The French have a credible energy system, however imperfect. 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.
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 5m over the course of the 2020s, pushing the old-age dependency ratio above 50pc. 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 25pc 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 13pc. These objectives must be reviewed. In no circumstances can Europe contemplate producing less,” he said.
That loss of 13pc 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.
“Since Russia is using food security as a weapon, we must counter it with a food shield. A paradigm shift is needed in the way Brussels thinks about agriculture,” said the powerful French farmers lobby FNSEA.
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 Green Deal. This unlocks large investment flows.
Putin has rehabilitated France’s nuclear industry, which still provides 70pc 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 to avoid blackouts.
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 €26bn hit this year, partly because it is being forced to provide energy below market prices to help Mr 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 hydrocarbons.
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Vladimir Putin and Emmanuel Macron in France in 2019 Credit: Gerard Julien, Pool via AP