France’s Self-Interest in Europe

‘France’s attitude towards Europe since 1945 has always been one of pure self-interest.’ Discuss.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, France was focussed largely on preventing further war with Germany[1]. As the implementation of crippling treaties in the interwar period had only served to render Germany bitter and vengeful[2], France instead sought trade agreements with her former enemy and other European nations in an effort to ensure a lasting and peaceful co-existence[3]. Furthermore, it was hoped that, following a period of decolonisation and international humiliation, France could be propelled onto the world stage as the dominant power in a new Europe that would represent a ‘third way’ between the ideologies of the American and Russian superpowers[4]. This essay will address the foundation of modern Europe and the principle of supra-nationalism as well as France’s relations with NATO, the USA, and West Germany in order to argue that her relationship with Europe has been one primarily inspired by a desire to avoid further war and to regain her status as major power. Furthermore, this essay will demonstrate that it is in relation to this aim for the reassertion of grandeur that the French attitude towards Europe has thusly been dictated.

In light of her diminishing influence overseas, France turned to Europe for trade, and moreover, to reassert her influence on the world stage. Arguably the first major step towards the envisioned French-dominated Europe came in the form of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). The ECSC was a supranational organisation established by the Treaty of Paris in 1951 through which France, West Germany, Italy and the Benelux countries (collectively referred to as ‘The Six’) created a common market for coal and steel[5]. It was first proposed by French statesman Jean Monnet and foreign minister Robert Schuman, whose aim was to, “make war not only unthinkable but materially impossible”[6], as coal and steel would be essential to any potential war effort. He declared that the ECSC would be, “the first concrete foundation of a European federation indispensable to the preservation of peace”[7]. France, as the quotations demonstrate, therefore first conceptualised the ECSC in the pursuit of lasting peace and of an integrated and co-ordinated European bloc. This was, however, a bloc in which France sought to dominate[8], and the ECSC aided her in this enterprise both by ensuring the provision of coal from the Ruhr to French steel factories, and as a consequence, by limiting German rearmament[9]. Ultimately, the ECSC proved to be successful, not only in the prevention of further war in Western Europe, but also in that it led to further treaties and increased co-operation which would generate ₣5-6bn per year in trade with Germany[10]. Robert Elgie argues that, “While there is undoubtedly a strong ideological and political commitment to the EU in France, we should also recognise that France’s support for integration is a means by which leaders have tried to pursue French self-interest”[11]. In this respect, France benefited from increased European collaboration and from supra-nationalism in that her geopolitical and economic interests were met.

However, President de Gaulle would later recognise that a federalised Europe would ultimately thwart his ambition to make France the major power in a European bloc of sovereign states and as such, he was firmly against the rise of supra-nationalism[12]. In light of the inconsistency of supra-nationalism and French national interest, and despite his belief in the European Communities’ (EC) ability to ensure peace in Europe, he described a united Europe as a “myth” preferring “l’Europe des États[13]. Indeed, the European Defence Community (EDC) had failed to be ratified by the French National Assembly on the grounds that an international army would threaten national sovereignty[14], and that the decision to put the Supreme Commander of NATO (North-Atlantic Treaty Organisation) in charge of EDC operations would align Europe with the USA against the USSR[15]. As part of de Gaulle’s effort to offer a ‘third way’ between these two superpowers, the Fouchet Plan was instead proposed in 1961 which offered an alternative, intergovernmental approach which would better preserve state sovereignty and, in turn, French influence in Europe[16]. It failed because it was seen as a step back from the federalised integration desired by the Benelux countries, the leaders of which criticised it as, “opportunism of the worst sort, cloaking national ambitions in rhetoric of the highest international principle”[17]. Derek Urwin writes that, “In essence, they [‘the Five’] were worried about Gaullist ambitions for French domination in Europe”[18]. This accusation suggests that France’s attitude towards Europe has not been driven primarily by the ideological desire for integration and supra-nationalism, as was shared by other members of the European Economic Community (EEC). Instead, the Fouchet Plan was a proposal born out of French self-interest in that it sought to repel encroachment upon French dominance by preventing the ceding of power to a supra-national body.

The Fouchet Plan’s opponents also rejected its proposed common foreign policy accusing it of being in deliberate opposition to the directives of NATO[19], an organisation that many European nations had joined in response to the spread of Soviet communism, which, as a threat which had replaced the prospect of a rearmed West Germany[20]. NATO had already reduced French influence over European foreign policy through its absorption of the Western Union’s Defence Organisation (WUDO) in 1950-51[21]. Whilst the WUDO had been based an organisation based around the principle of mutual defence[22], its successor was an alliance against an ideological enemy led by its most fervent opponent, the USA[23]. This was therefore a period in which American interest was beginning to take precedence over French interest, and, in 1966, following a dispute with the USA in which France had unsuccessfully demanded a role of increased leadership, de Gaulle pulled out of the integral command structure of NATO and began withdrawing troops from the organisation[24]. This response in itself is evidence of the stubborn self-interest which, as shown, was particularly prevalent during de Gaulle’s presidency. Perhaps more importantly, however, NATO’s appeal in Europe signalled the growing influence of another, larger power in Europe – the USA. Europe, for the most part, seemed to be choosing the support of the USA over the foreign policy proposed by France and, it could be argued that, in turn, this prevented de Gaulle from establishing his ‘third way’[25].

In a further move to limit the influence of the USA, and to preserve French dominance in Europe, de Gaulle vetoed Britain’s ascension to the EEC in 1963 with his famous “non[26]. He cited Britain’s incompatible economy and conveyed a belief that the country would act as a “Trojan Horse” for the USA in Europe[27]. In 1967, he rejected a second British application as he again suggested that, sooner or later, Britain’s loyalties would be shown to lie not with Europe, but with NATO and the USA[28]. However, with French dominance of Europe already under threat from increasing supra-nationalism and the encroachment of NATO, it seems that de Gaulle vetoed British ascension because he simply did not want another major power to rival France and lessen her influence in ‘his’ European Community. At the time, other nations were beginning to fight French dominance, not only by rejecting the Fouchet Plan in favour of American support, but also by refusing the disproportionate benefits de Gaulle was demanding from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP)[29]. De Gaulle therefore recognised that a British ascension would limit the extent to which France could dominate the bloc in order to reassert her grandeur and sculpt for herself the role of major power. The French attitude towards Europe then has been one of seemingly unwavering defence of national interest, as was again demonstrated by the events of the ‘Empty Chair Crisis’ in 1965-66, during which de Gaulle, reluctant to give up national sovereignty through Qualified Majority Voting (QMV) and France’s favourable terms of the CAP[30], ordered his ministers to abstain from the summit knowing that reform could not implemented without a unanimous decision[31]. Consequently, it seems that the French attitude towards Europe has not been one inspired by the ideological pursuit of integration, but has been dictated by national interest and the desire for regained power and influence.

The beginnings of the modern Franco-German dominance of the European Union are arguably found in the Elysée Treaty of 1963[32]. Often referred to as The Friendship Treaty, it was born out of good relations between French President, Charles de Gaulle and the German Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer and it sought to ensure closer co-operation of the two countries[33]. West Germany had been allowed to rearm and to join NATO and it remained Europe’s industrial powerhouse, so much so that Peter Zeihan argues that, “without harnessing Germany’s economic muscle […] France could never have used Europe as a reliable platform”[34]. He therefore argues that this treaty aimed at improving Franco-German relations was born out of self-interest in that de Gaulle aimed to:

“Take advantage of Germany’s post-war guilt to sublimate German national ambitions completely within France’s European project. Use German markets to fuel French industrial expansion. Use German finances to feed French agriculture. And integrate the two states with the other community members to serve French interests”[35].

In practice, this treaty established regular summits between high-level officials of both countries in which to consult on important issues in an effort to achieve a common stance on foreign policy and cultural affairs[36]. This practice of bilaterally establishing a shared position prior to intergovernmental conferences has ensured their status today as the major agenda-setting powers of Europe[37]. Following a period of French dominance in Europe, it seems that it was only West Germany’s imminent economic surpassing of France that prompted de Gaulle to somewhat cut his losses and settle for a level of parity. Indeed, the treaty was criticised by other members of ‘The Six’ who described its return to the “outworn concept of the absolute sovereignty of states” as threatening to European integration and, “harmful to the Common Market […] and harmful to the internal equilibrium of NATO”[38]. Such implications were of course irrelevant to de Gaulle who preferred the intergovernmental approach and, as has been established, sought solely to ensure France’s dominant status. As Stephen Kocs describes it, “In de Gaulle’s schema, France alone would rise to great-power status and would do so by standing on Germany’s shoulders”[39]. As its critics suggest, France has even managed to convince West Germany to contradict the EEC’s founding ideology of integration in order to secure the continuation of her status as a major power. The creation of the Elysée Treaty suggests therefore that France’s attitude towards European co-operation has always been one dictated by her own national interest and a desire to reassert her grandeur.

Fredrik Wetterqvist, speaking about de Gaulle’s idea of France as a global power independent of the world’s two superpowers, argues that, “To a large extent, these ideas have been carried on throughout the Pompidou, Giscard d’Estaing and Mitterrand Administrations”[40]. Pompidou, for example, seized the opportunity to push for the preferred intergovernmental approach by establishing more frequent summits between EEC leaders in response to West Germany’s desire for an agreement with Eastern Europe, which for France, “revived the old spectres and phobias about German power”[41]. Once again, France had turned to Europe as a matter of urgency to cater for her own interests, here, to ensure her own security. Whilst de Gaulle had improved Franco-German relations, Pompidou feared the rise of a reunified Germany[42], and looked to Britain, previously rejected by de Gaulle, as a counter-weight and as a “proponent of careful, intergovernmental co-operation”[43]. Britain’s ascension was part of a shift in French defence doctrine to one highlighting solely the likely aggression of the USSR,, which later led to improved relations with NATO as Giscard d’Estaing argued that, as Wetterqvist states, “French security was dependent on the Allies”[44]. It is again apparent here that France’s attitude towards Europe was dictated by self-interest in that her rapprochement with NATO was of paramount importance for her security, and that the ascension of Britain, which had previously been rejected as a threat to French dominance, was now vital in preserving her influence. Further steps towards an intergovernmental approach were established by Giscard d’Estaing, such as the guarantee that the leaders would meet three times per year as the European Council[45]. Later, following the end of the Cold War and the breakdown of the Warsaw Pact nations, Mitterrand suggested the dissolution of NATO and recreation of the WUDO[46]. Furthermore, he has supported the European Union as a means of reining in post-reunification Germany and, through the European Central Bank and shared currency, ensuring that France benefits from its economic success[47]. Here, the prevailing themes of controlling Germany and achieving a preferable economic deal endure in importance, and this is further evidence to support the argument that central to French relations with Europe is French benefit from Europe.

In conclusion, the prevailing attitude of France towards Europe has been one of self-interest. In the wake of the Second World War and the ensuing decolonisation, France saw the advent of a more closely-integrated Europe as an opportunity to assert dominance and to become a major, influential power on the world stage. Furthermore, de Gaulle later pursued stubborn protectionism through, for example, the petulant tactics deployed in defending the preferable terms afforded to France by the Common Agricultural Policy. Similarly, such damage limitation was also on show in Franco-German relations during this period as France recognised her former enemy’s potential to outstrip her own economy and dominate Europe. Through the Elysée Treaty, de Gaulle manipulated German war guilt and exploited their neighbour’s economy in order to provide a level of increased co-operation and lasting parity which would ultimately lay the foundations of the modern Franco-German dominance of Europe. Whilst de Gaulle had earlier refused to allow Britain into ‘his’ EEC, they were later welcomed by Pompidou as a potential ally to check and balance the power of a resurgent Germany. Similarly, French fear of a reunified Germany on good terms with the East has led the rapprochement between France and NATO and the USA. Yet moreover, France has continued to endorse an intergovernmental approach which best facilitates the fulfilment of French national interest on a European scale. This recurrent opportunism and protectionism demonstrate clearly that the French attitude towards Europe has, since 1945, been one pursued purely in self-interest.

[1] Fredrik Wetterqvist, French Security and Defence Policy: Current Developments and Future Prospects, (Darby, Pennsylvania, USA: Diane Publishing Co., 1990), p.13.

[2] A.W. Purdue, The Second World War, (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), p.18.

[3] Charles A. Kupchan, How Enemies Become Friends: The Sources of Stable Peace, (University of Princeton Press, 2012), p.204.

[4] Président de Gaulle, Conférence de presse du 23 juillet 1964 [23rd July, 1964]

[5] The ECSC Legislation Summary, Europa, <; [accessed 22 December 2014] (para. 1,6 of 35).

[6] The Schuman Declaration – 9th May 1950, Europa, <; [accessed 12 November 2014] (para. 6 of 16).

[7] The Schuman Declaration, Europa, (para. 8 of 16).

[8] Theodore Draper, ‘The Western Misalliance’, in European Peace Movements: and the Future of the Western Alliance, ed. by Robert Hunter and Walter Laqueur, (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Books, 1985), p.67. Cited in Wetterqvist, French Security and Defence Policy, p.13.

[9] David Howarth and Georgios Varouxakis, ‘France, Europe and the World’, in Contemporary France: An Introduction to French Politics and Society, (London: Hodder Arnold, 2003), p.194.

[10] David Lees, Lecture: France and the European Union, University of Warwick, 28th October 2014.

[11] Robert Elgie, ‘France’, in European Politics, ed. by Colin Hay and Anand Menon, (Oxford University Press, 2007), p.26.

[12] Ben Soetendorp, Foreign Policy in the European Union: History, Theory & Practice, (London: Routledge, 2014), p.19.

[13] W.F.V. Vanthoor, A Chronological History of the European Union 1946-2001, (Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Pub, 2002), p.24. Cited in Kupchan, How Enemies Become Friends, p.204.

[14] Kathryn Statler, Replacing France: The Origins of American Intervention in Vietnam, (University Press of Kentucky, 2007), p.55.

[15] Grégoire Mallard, Fallout: Nuclear Diplomacy in an Age of Global Fracture, (University of Chicago Press, 2014), p.94.

[16] Philip G. Cerny, The Politics of Grandeur: Idealogical Aspects of de Gaulle’s Foreign Policy, (University of Cambridge Press, 1980), p.169.

[17] Cerny, The Politics of Grandeur, p.210.

[18] Derek W. Urwin, The Community of Europe: A History of European Integration Since 1945, (London: Routledge, 2014), p.106.

[19] ibid.

[20] Alfred Grosser, Affaires Extérieures: La Politique de la France, 1944-1989, (Paris: Flammarion, 1989), p.76.

[21] Simon Duke, The elusive quest for European security: from EDC to CFSP, (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000), pp. 13-14.

[22] David G. Haglund, From euphoria to hysteria: Western European security after the Cold War, (Boulder, Colorado, USA: Westview Press, 1993), p.49.

[23] Marco Rimanelli, ‘NATO as a War-Preventative Organization: Cold War vs World War III’, in The Ashgate Research Companion to War: Origins and Prevention, ed. by Dr Oleg Kobtzeff and Professor Hall Gardner, (Farnham, UK, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2012), p.383.

[24] Wetterqvist, French Security and Defence Policy, p.14.

[25] Akan Malici, The Search for a Common European Foreign and Security Policy: Leaders, Cognitions, and Questions of Institutional Viability, (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), p.9.

[26] Charles Cogan, Alliés éternels, amis ombrageux: Les États-Unis et la France depuis 1940 (Brussels: Bruylant, 1999), pp. 243–244.

[27] ‘Biographie (1962-68 : La consolidation du régime)’,, <; [accessed 15 November 2014] (para. 6 of 10).

[28] Nigel Fisher, Harold Macmillan: A Biography, (London: Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1982), p.317.

[29] Mark A. Pollack, The Engines of European Integration: Delegation, Agency, and Agenda Setting in the EU, (Oxford University Press, 2003), pp.209-210.

[30] Charles Cogan, French Negotiating Behavior: Dealing with La Grande Nation, (Washington D.C., USA: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2003), p.218.

[31] Nicole Scicluna, European Union Constitutionalism in Crisis, (London: Routledge, 2014), p.20.

[32] Howarth and Varouxakis, Contemporary France, p.200.

[33] Stephen A. Kocs, Autonomy Or Power?: The Franco-German Relationship and Europe’s Strategic Choices, 1955-1995, (Santa Barbara, California, USA: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1995), p.48.

[34] Peter Zeihan, ‘EU: A Golden Anniversary – and a Hard Reality for France’, Geopolitical Weekly, <; [accessed 9 April 2015] (para. 14 of 31).

[35] Zeihan, ‘EU: A Golden Anniversary’, Geopolitical Weekly, (para. 15 of 31).

[36] Christoph Gunkel, ‘Sealed With A Kiss: Treaty Heralded New Era in Franco-German Times’, Spiegel Online International, 22nd January 2013, <; [accessed 14 November 2014] (para. 6 of 27).

[37] Howarth and Varouxakis, Contemporary France, p.200.

[38] Urwin, The Community of Europe, p.107.

[39] Kocs, Autonomy Or Power?, p.46.

[40] Wetterqvist, French Security and Defence Policy, p.14.

[41] Urwin, The Community of Europe, p.138.

[42] François Seydoux, Dans l’intimité franco-allemande, (Paris: Éditions Albatros, 1977), p.161. Cited in Parsons, A Certain Idea of Europe, (Cornell University Press, 2003), p.156.

[43] Pompidou et l’Europe, ed. by Association Georges Pompidou, (Brussels: Complexe, 1995), p.237. Cited in Craig Parsons, A Certain Idea of Europe, p.156.

[44] Urwin, The Community of Europe, p.139.

[45] Hussein Kassim, ‘The Institutions of the European Union’, in European Politics, ed. by Colin Hay, p.177.

[46] Soetendorp, Foreign Policy in the European Union, p.135.

[47] Elgie, ‘France’, in European Politics, ed. by Colin Hay, p.26.



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