In ailing Europe, France is confused

Ghassan Charbel

Published: Updated:

In democracies, public opinion is a reckless and insidious horse. It takes you to the palace in a powerful wave, but quickly expects you to do miracles beyond your powers, disregarding the bureaucratic, political and psychological obstacles. The moment you fail to astonish it, it begins to disseminate its remorse through frustrations, protests and settling of accounts.

Today, technology has changed the rules of the game. It made it harder and more dangerous. With smartphones, every citizen has become an independent party. Everyone has his own newspaper on his phone screen. Everyone has been granted the opportunity to harass, oppose, condemn and circulate news and rumors.

Social media can assemble scattered opinions and turn them into rivers, and accumulate dispersed winds into a thundery storm. In the past, authorities were monitoring prominent parties, unions and rebels. But now, how is it possible to implant a policeman in the phone and mind of every citizen?

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A few weeks ago, Emmanuel Macron was able to achieve great dreams despite the polls that confirmed the massive fall in the high tide that took him to the Elysee Palace. The European stadium awaited a man who could speak on behalf of the continent and not only on behalf of his country.

The European scene was tempting. Chancellor Angela Merkel, who in recent years has been the backbone of European joint work, has begun to prepare for her departure. She abandoned the leadership of the party to later leave the Chancellery headquarters.

On the other hand, British Prime Minister Theresa May is busy completing divorce proceedings with the European Union, struggling on the Brussels front and trying to avoid the stabs of her opponents and the daggers of her fellow party members.

Trump’s arrival to the White House is not a simple event. His way of managing America and world affairs is new, strange, difficult to ignore and hard to catch up with

Ghassan Charbel

Merkel’s path to retirement

Only France seemed eligible to fill the void that would be caused by Merkel’s path to retirement and May’s European divorce. Macron was preparing himself for this major role. Europe is not at its best. The misunderstanding between the two sides of the Atlantic is strong.

Donald Trump uses a dictionary that is hard for the leaders of the ancient continent to accept. He demands Europe to assume greater responsibilities in self-defense. He reminds its leaders that the US military has saved the continent twice, but America is tired of generous spending to ensure the safety of its allies.

Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, misses no opportunity to weaken the Atlantic and Western spirit. He regained Crimea under the logic of reuniting the branch with its trunk. He shook the stability of Ukraine, reminding the Europeans that Russia will not tolerate attempts to besiege it, encircle it or regard it as a second-level force.

The issue is not just about US-Russian rivalry. Europe must try to find a place in the new world that is taking shape. The Asian advancement is no longer a mere media speculation. It is a tangible fact. Beijing is living under the strongest leadership it has known since Mao Zedong.

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The master of the world’s second economy wants more than the Silk Road for his country. In parallel with China’s ascension, one must bear in mind India’s technological advances, which qualify it to be a big player in the coming phase, alongside America, China and Europe.

More than ever, the world seems blown away by surprises. Trump’s arrival to the White House is not a simple event. His way of managing America and world affairs is new, strange, difficult to ignore and hard to catch up with. When America changes, the world changes too. Putin’s Russia is not an easy opponent either.

The tsar manipulates the cards, moves his pawns and then asks the world to acknowledge his gains. At this time, Europe seems confused, suggesting sometimes that it was swiftly founded while ignoring that its countries are advancing at different paces.

Exit the EU

It is not easy for the British people to choose to exit the EU and then find out at the Brexit advocates do not have a convincing plan to face the burden of divorce.

Public opinion sometimes commits costly adventures under the weight of populist voices, discontent with taxes, declining confidence in the political class, and the flow of news and illusions through social media.

Macron dreamed of qualifying France for a bigger role in Europe. He knows that the current world needs a modern economy free of the weight of old ideas and notions that prevent the economy from growing, advancing and competing. He knows that the French have to accept bitter measures if they want a sustainable economy that can attract investments. So he initiated some reforms.

But the young president soon became “the president of the rich.” He was blamed for restricting the decisions at the Elysee and not giving enough space to the institutions and to the necessary efforts to motivate the ordinary citizens. The gap between the president and the street has widened and campaigns and accusations have intensified.

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The French people have a long history of protests. The current president was not yet born when they flowed into the streets of Paris in May 1968. On that day, the Elysee was ran by a man named Charles de Gaulle. His powers were wide and his aura was greater. France sank into chaos and confusion, and it seemed that those who ripped up street paving stones had also uprooted the pillars of the regime.

De Gaulle chose not to surrender and bet on the French fear of the unknown fate looming on the horizon. He dissolved the national assembly, organized general elections and achieved victory. A year later, he cited disappointing results in a referendum on decentralization and stepped down. He lost hope in his ability to convince the French, who were making fun of the ordinary president and hated the president with the aura.

Macron was dreaming of the great European role when the yellow jackets took to the streets. As usual, the wrath of the people was mixed with practices of those with precedents. Among the protesters, there are those who attack the government, its taxes and policies… and those who complain about the European project itself and the Brussels directives… Right-wing radicals and extremists from the left.

France is tangled between the role and its requirements, the rescue and its costs. It is a troubled country in a troubled continent, where many migrants dream of throwing themselves into its capitals.

This article was first published in Asharq Al-Awsat.
Ghassan Charbel is the Editor-in-Chief of London-based Al Sharq al-Awsat newspaper. Ghassan's Twitter handle is @GhasanCharbel.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.