One is the psychology of Sarkozy himself, whose love for the most superficial aspects of the United States was expressed in his embarrassing speech to the U.S. Congress in November 2007. Sarkozy may be the first French president who seems not to like France. Or at least, to like the United States better (from watching television). He can give the impression of having wanted to be president of France not for love of country, but in social revenge against it. From the start, he has shown himself eager to “normalize” France, that is, to remake it according to the American model.
The other, less obvious but more objective cause is the recent expansion of the European Union.
The rapid absorption of all the former Eastern European satellites, plus the former Soviet Republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, has drastically changed the balance of power within the EU itself. The core founding nations, France, Germany, Italy and the Benelux countries, are no long able to steer the Union toward a unified foreign and security policy. After France and Germany refused to go along with the invasion of Iraq, Donald Rumsfeld dismissed them as “old Europe” and gloated over the willingness of “new Europe” to follow the United States lead. Britain to the west, and the “new” European satellites to the East are both more attached to the United States politically and emotionally than they are to the European Union that took them in and provided them with considerable economic development aid and a veto over major policy issues.
This expansion effectively buried the longstanding French project to build a European defense force that could act outside the NATO command. The rulers of Poland and the Baltic States want U.S. defense, by way of NATO, period. They would never accept the French project of an EU defense not tied to NATO and the United States.
France has its own military-industrial complex, totally dwarfed by the one in the United States, but the largest in Western Europe. Any such complex needs export markets for its arms industry. The best potential market would have been independent European armed forces. Without that prospect, some may hope that joining the integrated command can open NATO markets to French military products.
A slim hope, however. The United States jealously guards major NATO procurements for its own industry. France is unlikely to have much influence within NATO for the same reason it is giving up its attempt to build an independent European army. The Europeans themselves are deeply divided. With Europe divided, the United States rules. Moreover, with the economic crisis deepening, money is running short for weaponry.
From the viewpoint of French national interest, this feeble hope for marketing military hardware is vastly outweighed by the disastrous political consequences of Sarkozy’s act of allegiance.
It is true that even outside the NATO integrated command, France’s independence was only relative. France followed the United States into the first Gulf War – President François Mitterrand vainly hoped thereby to gain influence in Washington, the usual mirage that beckons allies into dubious U.S. operations. France joined the 1999 NATO war against Yugoslavia, despite misgivings at the highest levels. But in 2003, President Jacques Chirac and his foreign minister Dominique de Villepin actually made use of their independence by rejecting the invasion of Iraq. It is generally acknowledged that the French stand enabled Germany to do the same. Belgium followed.
Villepin’s February 14, 2003, speech to the UN Security Council giving priority to disarmament and peace over war won a rare standing ovation. The Villepin speech was hugely popular around the world, and greatly enhanced French prestige, especially in the Arab world. But back in Paris, the personal hatred between Sarkozy and Villepin has reached operatic heights of passion, and one can suspect that Sarkozy’s return to NATO obedience is also an act of personal revenge.