Now is the time for France to regain its place at the helm of Europe

As a wise friend remarked to me recently, in Chinese the word crisis represents both danger and opportunity. Given the situation France finds itself in today, I can find no better word to describe its predicament.

The horrific loss of life in Paris (not forgetting Lebanon’s worst terrorist attack since 1990 or the Baghdad bombings), have shaken Europe out of its coma and into a sense of urgency. French solidarity across Europe is overwhelming and while a nation finishes its period of national mourning there is a question that remains to be answered. What does France do next?

It wasn’t long ago that France seemed to be drifting away from its role as a global leader. The Economist recently spoke of France’s diminishing status relative to Germany in the role of EU policy, but even before there were questions asked about the lack of charismatic, dynamic and genuinely popular French political leaders, let alone the long list of challenges facing the French economy that have remained unresolved. These issues remain important but they also conveniently neglect several key strengths which should give commentators pause.

France remains one of the most advanced and developed economies in the world and with good reason. It’s people are highly educated (admits the Brit grudgingly) and its industries are world leaders in their respective fields. It is not a purely services based economy like the UK, nor is it a manufacturing hub like Germany. The work-life balance is almost unbeatable and French food, fashion and culture remain extraordinarily powerful exports.

But what France has been lacking is that famous confidence of its place in the world for which Britain and others have long casually teased it for. Now is the time for France and its people to rediscover that sense of purpose and leadership which has made France so pivotal in shaping the modern world.

Europe desperately needs leadership and there is no-one else who can play that role. Germany is both unwilling and unable to lead Europeans anywhere beyond forcing financial obligations upon them and opening its borders as a temporary stop-gap solution to the current migration crisis. Italy is too economically weak and politically divided to provide leadership. None of the other European nations have the political or economic clout to move Europe forward. This may also be one of the few instances where most would also agree that the UK cannot lead Europe forward.

But lead Europe “forward” to what and how?

Hollande may not go down in history as the most successful domestic policy president in French history, but on foreign policy he has consistently surprised and impressed commentators for his decisiveness. It is in this direction which he must turn now and towards the most important French foreign policy issue of all, agreeing the next stage of fundamental European integration.

Europe is struggling because it is caught between two worlds. Ahead lies the formal acknowledgment that Europe’s member states may never return to the independent statehood they once enjoyed. Behind them lies the memory of European disintegration, mutual competition and the recognition that this generation of European leaders have failed where their elders succeeded.

The European project is extremely popular across Europe and it remains one of the few areas of common ground that unites the majority of European citizens and their political parties. The collective feeling that Europe does have at its root some common cultural and moral values. That a united Europe can punch above its weight on the world stage. These ideas are extremely strong and attractive to citizens of the EU, irrespective of nationality, political affiliation, gender, age or race.

France now has the chance to utilise this huge political capital it has been given to move Europe towards a more unified body and the “ever closer union”. It can do this in two clear ways. First it should propose a formalised “two-tier” Europe, with a commitment that those in the outer tier do not have to commit to “ever-closer union”. Such a deal would immediately allow hold-outs like the UK, Sweden, Denmark and other EU nations with special exemptions on currency, border, etc, to step-back from the main show of policy formulation for the central tier of Eurozone currency members.

Stage two, France should propose a fiscal union to complement the existing monetary union. The EU already has a 3% fiscal deficit law in place, but it is not widely respected or equally applied. Struggling eurozone nations like Greece have already accepted the forfeiture of their sovereignty over national spending. Why not formalise this process and as a sweetener formalise the collective underwriting of the national debt held by these member states. Again, Europe is already doing this in Greece anyway. Now is the time to stop playing games and to show clear leadership, transparency, and a clear path for struggling EU members to pay down their debts.

But France cannot do this all alone. As was recently argued in Foreign Policy, now is the time for France’s allies to lead from behind and give them the support needed. Firstly the UK needs to pull its weight in Syria and take on more of the combat responsibilities alongside France. The UK is the only other European nation with any aerial capabilities to assist in the air campaign over Syria. The more we do, the less France needs to do militarily and the more they can focus on resolving the crisis within Europe. The US can also help here too by sharing further intelligence resources with France in a similar vein to its relationship with the UK. The US and UK should also declare NATO’s article 5 on France’s behalf to show symbolic solidarity and to remind all actors involved in the Syria/Iraq conflict that this is now a collective national security threat to the world’s pre-eminent military alliance.

In Europe, Germany, Italy, Austria, Spain and Holland need to use their combined economic and political weight to force recalcitrant member states to share the migration burden and to sign up to further EU integration measures. The economic sweetner to southern states and the migration sweetner to the northern states is an attractive mutual proposition.

Now is the time for France to dust itself down and raise its head up high while her friends lift it up to its place at the helm of European leadership.

If not now, then when?